Why great bosses rarely give negative feedback, backed by science


If you’ve ever gotten one, it won’t surprise you to learn that the science shows that the so-called feedback sandwich — lead with a positive, divide the negative, then close with a positive — is a terrible way to deliver constructive feedback. criticism.

According to a study published in Management Review Quarterly, the feedback sandwich almost always corrects negative or inadequate behavior.

But what you may not know is that, even when delivered individually, people tend to clearly remember the positive feedback they receive – but within a short period of time, they don’t remember the negative feedback at all.

The problem lies in how we form beliefs about ourselves. We all tend to overestimate our abilities. We want to believe that we are smart. We want to believe that we are talented. We want to believe that we are good at what we do.

So we unconsciously find ways to feel good about ourselves.

That means, as a study conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn shows, we are very good at quickly explaining away – and even forgetting – negative feedback.

As the researchers write:

The tension that arises between the desired self-image and actual behavior is often resolved by manipulating beliefs or perceptions… thereby restoring the self-image.

While beliefs after positive feedback remain revised upwards, beliefs after negative feedback are substantially “restored” and reflect the feedback to a much lesser extent; thus the effect of negative feedback on beliefs is softened over time.

No such pattern is observed for positive feedback.

Our findings suggest that people in such environments try (and manage) to suppress feedback that threatens their desired self-image.

The result is what psychologists call motivated belief. Say something good about me and I will remember it, because positive feedback strengthens my self-image.

However, say something negative about me, and without even trying I will suppress it and eventually forget it.

Because the last thing I want to believe is that I’m undersized.

So how should you give negative feedback?

That gives you a bit of a pickle. As a leader, it’s your job — it’s your responsibility — to develop your employees.

After all: the better your employees, the better your company.

Which means sometimes constructive feedback, or even a little hard love, is needed.

So how can you overcome motivated beliefs so that change (and development) happens in the long run?

1. Always follow up.

The research shows that self-confidence ‘adjusts’ immediately after feedback. If you tell me that I made mistakes in nine out of ten presentation slides I made, I’ll admit at first that I was a little sloppy.

But within a month, one of two things will happen:

I’ll decide you were wrong and my performance was actually fine (the better-than-average effect), or I’ll forget we ever had the conversation

The easy way to counter the impact of motivated beliefs? Follow up in a few weeks. Please evaluate my performance since you provided the feedback. Provide facts, figures or examples that justify your assessment.

If I improved, great. If I didn’t, the conversation will re-adjust my confidence appropriately.

In short, don’t assume that negative feedback, once delivered, will be remembered forever.

2. Praise the positive too, no matter how occasionally it occurs.

The other option is to harness the power of positive memory. Research shows that people who have received positive feedback remember not only the feedback (“Great job!”), but also the facts that accompany the feedback (“Your sales increased 17 percent month-over-month!”)

Again, say nine of my ten presentation decks were riddled with inaccuracies and typos.

Instead of showing me the nine decks of problems, swallow your frustration and focus on the good ones. Tell me it’s great. Please tell me you appreciate that there were no errors or omissions. Explain why that makes a difference to the audience and to you.

Do that, and I’ll remember how good it feels to do it right — and I’ll want to experience that feeling again.

Think of it as the ‘catch me when I’m doing something right’ phenomenon. If you’d like me to be more patient in handling customer complaints, praise me for showing that behavior. If you want me to spend extra time training struggling employees, praise me for showing that behavior.

Then I will not only want to conform to your perception of me — and just as importantly, my own perception of and beliefs about myself.

I also remember what you said much better.

That’s the whole point of giving feedback.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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