Research shows (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) that whether we are giving positive or negative feedback the way we deliver it can have a long-term effect on the recipients’ ability to deal with immediate and future setbacks.
In work as in life, things don’t always run smoothly and there are bound to be setbacks and challenges. And whether we like it or not, part of our role as managers requires us to give appropriate feedback in order to redress the situation and/or to prevent the individual making the same mistake again.
Performance Management and Appraisals and Feedback
If the performance management and appraisal system is to be effective it’s important to think about how people in our teams deal with difficulties and, specifically, whether they go on to repair any damage done and to improve their future performance.
The trouble is that as well as needing to deal with the setback itself, people may also have to cope with a blow to their self-esteem, and sometimes these responses can be at odds. They may end up so focused on saving face that they ignore opportunities to learn from the experience and change their behaviour.
In protecting themselves, it can be easy to dismiss negative feedback as inaccurate or biased – the manager may be branded as unfair or unaware of the facts.
It’s also easy for people to look outside for the fault rather than taking personal responsibility – in this way it is someone else who screwed up, or lack of time or resources are to blame.
If that doesn’t work they can always resort to comparing themselves with others, “Well she/he’s much worse than me….”
This instinct for self defence may even lead to tears, aggression, or conflict.
Of course, none of these options address the underlying cause of the negative feedback but may well start to derail an appraisal meeting.
Praise and Criticism
Are you commenting on the person as a whole or a specific behaviour?
If criticism or praise is levelled at the person as a whole then the underlying message is that whether they have succeeded or failed they have little control over it. They are being told the outcome is the result of an innate ability or character trait rather than their process, creative thinking, or level of persistence.
If that’s the case then what are they supposed to do about it?
If the comments are negative then of course people will opt to defend a personal attack, they can’t change who they are. Even if the comments are positive the if success is associated with luck or natural ability what happens when that isn’t enough to get them through? It follows that judging people by their inherent traits may ultimately undermine peoples’ beliefs in their ability to deal with future setbacks.
However when praise or criticism is specifically focused, not on the idea of a general permanent ability, but on particular acquired skills there is a greater incentive to try harder and learn more. In this way positive or negative feedback can motivate people to perform well.
The more specific we can be about the behaviour or process we are praising or challenging, the more the individual can learn from the feedback in order to move forward and tackle future projects.
Also, in an atmosphere of trust in which failed attempts don’t reflect on the permanent ability of the individual there is far less risk attached to changing behaviour, taking initiative, and accepting responsibility.
So whether the message you have to give is good news or bad it’s worth thinking about the effect of what you are saying.
Are you praising or challenging what people did or who they are – specific behaviour or whole person?
How are they left feeling – empowered or powerless?