Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Ken Blanchard
I’ve noticed for a while that managers and leaders have found interesting ways to avoid referring to “negative” feedback using such terms as “constructive” or if they’re pushed “critical,” but hardly ever negative. I understand why we do this and actually I am not proposing that we go about beating people up with negativity, but I think it’s important not to lose sight of what “negative” feedback is actually all about.
Since todays feedback process has its genesis in the technical world of feedback, it’s worth going back to the original idea on occasion to remember the purpose of the process. Whether you are using the metaphor of electronic circuitry or of a gunner firing from a ship, there are a few things to remember about the purpose of positive and negative feedback.
1. Positive feedback reinforces. In human terms, when I give you positive feedback I am usually encouraging you to do more of what it is that you are already doing, or perhaps pushing you to do similar things that make you even more successful. Positive feedback creates energy in people and fires them up that they are doing things right.
2. Negative feedback diverts or redirects. Again, in human terms, when I give you negative feedback, I am usually encouraging you to stop what you are doing or tweak our approach to something else. Negative feedback creates stability, helping us to make adjustments in order to hit the target we have already identified.
Of all of the preconditions for effective feedback, one of the most important is that a target has been established so that our feedback is relative to something else. For example, if I have no idea how I am expected to behave relative to customer satisfaction, neither positive nor negative feedback is very helpful. If I happen to be getting it right in your eyes, then great. If I’m getting it wrong, then we’re both disappointed. But if I don’t know exactly what it is you want in the first place, either type of feedback can create confusion.
A second precondition is specificity. Again, telling me I’m great with customers is nice to hear, but I have no idea what you are trying to reinforce. Telling me I need to work on my customer contact skills might be correct, but I don’t know what to fix if you aren’t specific. If there’s a misunderstanding about the feedback, I may put a lot of effort into doing something that has no impact in the end.
Both types of feedback, negative and positive, should be constructive—they should serve a purpose. To separate the two by calling the negative feedback “constructive” implies that the positive feedback is nice but of no real importance. Employees are smart enough to understand that there are positive and negative aspects to their behavior so I encourage you to call it what it is without worrying so much about whether you are being a downer. Of course you are…nobody likes to hear that they are doing it wrong. But if you dance around the issue, you also run the risk of being unclear.
Finally, don’t forget that your followers get feedback on a constant basis without your intervention. At least if they understand your expectations and have clear targets they do. If I see the results of my work fairly quickly, and I know what’s expected, it’s likely that I get most of my feedback from my own results. If the results of my work are delayed in time, then I need your help in understanding what sorts of adjustments I should make. If I don’t get feedback from my leader, both positive and negative, I fill the information gap with assumptions that inevitably, over time, drift off course.