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Work Smart

The Dangers Of Dishing Out Negative Feedback

New research suggests the reaction to negative feedback has important implications for both employees and managers.

The Dangers Of Dishing Out Negative Feedback

[Photo: XiXinXing/iStock]

There’s a lot of advice out there when it comes to giving feedback. Many experts agree on some basics:

  • Be honest
  • Be specific
  • Don’t make it personal
  • Give feedback often

After all, regular direct feedback is a way of contributing to our teams and helping our employees and colleagues become better at their jobs, right?

But there's an important difference between giving glowing reviews and negative feedback. And the reaction could be hurting your team.

A 2016 working paper from researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina found that giving negative feedback can actually make people avoid you. In "Shopping for Confirmation: How Threatening Feedback Leads People to Reshape Their Social Network," researchers Francesca Gino and Paul Green, Jr. from Harvard and Bradley Staats the University of North Carolina found that common theories about how to lessen the impact of negative feedback might not be as effective as we think they are.

"I am struck by how difficult it is to have a helpful conversation at work," Gino says.

The Problem With Negative Feedback

Even when we’re eager to share negative feedback in the spirit of helping to improve a person's or team’s performance or improve an outcome, it could be making people avoid you. The researchers found that when people receive feedback that is threatening to their self-image—such as being told that they’re not doing a good job—they begin to actively avoid the person who delivered that feedback.

Gino says that’s problematic because the feedback that helps us develop most is often that which is tough to hear. "In my own career, when I think about the people who have been the most important in helping me grow into a better scholar or even a better person, the people who come to mind gave me that tough feedback that maybe I didn’t want to hear," she says.

Give Up The Ghosting

The findings have different implications for those receiving and delivering negative feedback. While it’s not clear whether varying personality types respond differently to negative feedback—that’s a point of study Gino is considering for the future—recipients need to be aware of this avoidance tendency in order to overcome it and get the information needed to improve performance.

The study found that people who ask for feedback typically don’t need it because they are performing well. Those people were eager to develop and didn’t typically have the weaknesses of those who shied away from hearing an assessment of themselves, she says.

"I think there are lessons, as people who can always improve and find ways to get better, to be a little bit more open with our ears when the feedback that we hear is not as positive as we thought it would be," Gino says. In addition, we should actively avoid trying to wall off truly constructive feedback, even when it’s not rosy. Doing so may actually hurt our professional development.

For managers, the implications are twofold: Be aware that delivering negative feedback may be off-putting, so consider how you can deliver it so that it’s not as threatening. For example, you could change the conversation and help the person self-evaluate, emphasizing the areas where you feel they’re honing in themselves on areas of weakness. Raising such questions can help you be a more effective leader and overcome the defeating nature of negative feedback. At the same time, Gino says it’s important to not emphasize positive attributes to the point where the employee or team can simply focus on that feedback and ignore the areas that need work.

Gino believes studies such as these, which draw out lesser-known behaviors that can get in the way of effectiveness and productivity in the workplace, are important in helping people be aware of behaviors. Awareness can lead to reflection, she says, which is necessary for development and performance. That can actually make people more comfortable with receiving the feedback they need to improve.

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