The Truth About Negative Feedback

by Stephen Young

Leaders know that providing regular feedback is an essential tool for success. In fact, giving feedback infrequently comes with a price. According to a study of more than 80 U.S.-based executives conducted by research and advisory firm the Center for Creative Leadership, not giving poor performers feedback costs organizations thousands of dollars per day.

Unfortunately, recent reports have confused the issue by suggesting positive feedback has a bigger impact on performance improvement than constructive criticism.

To shed more light on the this question, my colleagues and I at CCL conducted a survey of 235 leaders from organizations around the world. Participants were asked about the total performance feedback they gave and received in the previous three months, with the goal of understanding how feedback is being handled in today’s workplaces to identify gaps in current practices and develop benchmarks to help leaders understand feedback’s value.

CCL used four feedback categories as defined by researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio:

  • Positive Process: Your boss says you’re performing well on a task or project that’s still underway.
  • Negative Process: You need to make changes in how you’re handling ongoing work.
  • Positive Outcome: The task or project is complete and you’re praised for a job well done.
  • Negative Outcome: In the end, your performance was not up to par.

What type of feedback did managers report wanting to receive?

  • Positive: Respondents to the survey said they got about the same amount of positive feedback related to ongoing work as they wanted. Their bosses gave them more positive feedback about completed work than they preferred.
  • Negative: The managers surveyed wanted more negative feedback during a task or project and after it was completed.

What It Means

Don’t wait for performance reviews to provide constructive feedback.

It’s clear that many employees appreciate honest feedback, even when it is hard to hear. They understand it will help them move ahead in their careers.

Without constructive feedback, poor performers will continue hurt organizations. They could also miss out on opportunities throughout their careers if they don’t know their strengths and weaknesses.

Top performers need regular feedback as well, and they’ll eventually leave the organization if they don’t get it.
A boss’ ability to deliver constructive feedback improves co-workers’ perceptions of them.

People who rated their managers as ineffective received less weekly or daily feedback than those who rated their bosses as highly effective. Also, employees who received the most positive process feedback were more likely to rate their bosses as highly effective.

When it comes to building a culture where employees feel comfortable asking for and receiving feedback, leaders set the tone. By making timely and constructive feedback a priority, managers can go a long way in building a well-functioning team.