Negative feedback is better than none. I would rather have a man hate me than overlook me. As long as he hates me, I make a difference.
What do you think leads to the most disengagement in talent?
1. Little or no feedback
2. Negative feedback
3. Positive feedback
Positive and Negative Feedback
Recent research suggests that feeling emotional hurt, being given critical feedback from your boss, having your ideas rejected by other respected colleagues, being made fun of, or being verbally abused all seem to have the same negative impact on our health.
It seems that emotional pain and physical pain both follow the same neuro- pathways in our brain and can both lead to the same outcomes of depression, immune suppression and fatigue. In a study by Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues at UCLA, she was able to use the latest technology called functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) to peer into the inner workings of our brain while a team was involved in a social exercise designed to provoke feelings of social isolation and rejection.
She studied what part of the brain was activated while a group of subjects played a computer game with other individuals they did not know. She created two possibilities of being rejected–either actively or passively (she told them they could not continue because of some technical problems). Comparison of fMRI brain activity in the active exclusion group versus inclusion conditions revealed greater activity in the part of the brain that is associated with physical pain (anterior cingulate cortex). Additionally, the subjects who were rejected also reported feeling psychological distress based on self-report measures (Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams, 2003).
Four additional studies show that recall of past socially painful situations elicits greater pain than reliving a past physically painful event and has greater negative impact on cognitively demanding tasks (Chen & colleagues, 2008).
So, we know pretty convincingly that negative feedback certainly can be not only harmful to your health, but likely to be highly disengaging due to the “sting” we feel whether or not we consciously associate it with physical pain. And, some evidence also supports the idea that being socially rejected is equally damaging to us.
Positive Versus Negative Feedback Ratios
When we use 360-degree feedback assessments in coaching we always include at least 1-2 open-ended questions at the end of the questionnaire asking raters about perceived strengths to leverage and behaviors the leader can do more, less or differently to become even more effective. Our own research and those of others suggests that feedback can be emotionally harmful if there is an overwhelming amount of perceived critical or negative feedback. (Nowack & Mashihi, 2012). For example, Smither and Walker (2004) analyzed the impact of upward feedback ratings as well as narrative comments over a one-year period for 176 managers.
They found that those who received a small number of unfavorable behaviourally based comments improved more than other managers, but those who received a large number (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance more than other managers. This is the one of the only studies we have seen that has found that qualitative feedback in 360 interventions might actually be disengaging and demoralizing to participants if the ratio of positive to negative feedback is low.
Over the years we have run developmental assessment centers that always have at least one leaderless group exercise. We can easily observe the differences between groups that appear to function effectively from those who don’t based on the communications and interpersonal behaviour of the group members–not how smart any individual is or the collective experience or technical expertise of the members.
Recent studies have established that teams with positive to negative interaction ratios greater than 3 to 1 are significantly more productive than teams that do not reach this ratio (Things can worsen if the ratio goes higher than 13 to 1). Marcial Losada brought 60 management teams into a simulated board room where they could hold actual meetings (Losada & Heafy, 2004). Behind mirrors, researchers observed and coded every statement made by each individual on three scales: 1. Positive statements (support, optimism, appreciation) versus negative statements (disapproval, sarcasm, cynicism). 2. Self-focused statements (refer to the person speaking, the group present, or the company) versus other-focused statements (references to a person or group not part of the company). 3. Inquiry (questions aimed at exploring an idea) versus advocacy (arguments in favor of their own point of view).
Losada also measured something he called connectivity or how attuned or responsive the team members were to each other. Finally, he gathered data on three dependent variables: profitability, customer satisfaction, and evaluations by superiors, peers and subordinates. In the study, positive to negative ratio (P/N) was measured by counting the instances of positive feedback (e.g. “that is a good idea”) vs. negative feedback (e.g. “this is not what I expected; I am disappointed”).
Overall, high performance teams had a P/N ratio of 5.6, medium performance teams a P/N ratio of 1.9 and low performance teams a P/N ratio of 0.36 (more negative than positive feedback and interactions).
No Feedback and Engagement
Gallup organisation asked a random sample of 1,003 employees in the U.S how much they agreed with two statements: 1) My supervisor focuses on my strengths/positive characteristics and 2) My supervisor focuses on my weaknesses or negative characteristics. They were also asked whether they were engaged, not engaged or actively disengaged with their work and jobs.
Employees who did not agree with either statement were characterised as “ignored” in their analyses.
The findings suggest that no feedback might actually do more harm than negative or positive feedback.
- Positive Feedback: In the group that reported their bosses gave them positive feedback in the form of focusing on what they did well (i.e., their strengths), only 1% were actively disengaged and 61% reported being fully engaged.
- Negative Feedback: In the group that reported that their bosses tended to focus on the negative and provide ongoing critical feedback to them, 22% reported being actively disengaged and 45% reported being engaged.
- No Feedback: In the group that reported being largely ignored by their bosses (no positive or negative feedback), 40% reported being actively disengaged and only 2% reported being engaged.
Interestingly, the most disengaged group of employees reported to bosses who seemed to ignore them and provide little or not feedback at all.
The findings of these studies are not surprising in suggesting the intuitive power of defining and leveraging the strengths of talent nor in warning us about the obvious dangers of negative feedback as causing social stress and perceptions of bullying at work.
It would appear that in the case of feedback, less is more is actually not recommended and might have the most negative impact of all followed by a large ratio of negative to positive feedback based on research on groups and teams.
So, go and find that high potential talent today in your organisation and tell them something positive or at least something constructive so they can continue to really shine.
**Kenneth Nowack will be giving a free seminar on ‘Clueless: Coaching people to change behaviour’ at the World of Learning Exhibition at 14:45 – 15:15 at Tuesday 30 September 2014. Register free for the exhibition here >>**
Chen, Z., Williams, K., Fitness, J. & Newton, N. (2008). When hurt will not heal. Psychological Science, 19, 789-795.
Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. and Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
Gallup Organization http://gmj.gallup.com/content/124214/driving-engagement-focusing-strengths.aspx
Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 740–765.
Nowack, K. & Mashihi, S. (2012). Evidence Based Answers to 15 Questions about Leveraging 360-Degree Feedback. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 64, 157–182.
Nowack, K. (2009). Leveraging Multirater Feedback to Facilitate Successful Behavioral Change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 61, 280-297
Smither, J. & Walker, A.G. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multirater feedback ratings over time? Personnel Psychology, 89, 575-581.
About the Author: Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning www.envisialearning.com, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, and is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Ken also serves as Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available at http://www.envisialearning.com/clueless_book
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