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Why "Constructive Feedback" Doesn't Improve Performance

Constructive feedback rarely improves performance.

Constructive feedback, which is usually critical, rarely helps anyone, and certainly rarely improves employee performance on the job.

In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project, and author of Be Excellent At Anything, says that when we hear the phrase from someone, "would you mind if I give you some feedback?" what that actually means to most of us is "would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback," wrapped up in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not.

There are some fundamental problems with negative criticism, regardless of whether we clothe it politely as "constructive." First, Schwartz contends, criticism "challenges our sense of value. Criticism implies judgment and we all recoil from feeling judged." Indeed, psychologists such as Daniel Goleman, contend that threats to our self-esteem and sense of self-worth in the form of criticism can feel like threats to our survival.

Schwartz identifies three mistakes that people make when giving critical feedback:

  1. The person giving the feedback often does so from a position of having their value or self-esteem feeling threatened;
  2. The more the other person feels threatened, the less open they are to value or consider the constructive feedback;
  3. It's about "being right," and the other person "being wrong," a case and story is built that makes the perspective of the person giving the feedback "true" and the other person's perspective "faulty."

Part of our resistance to positive reactions to negative feedback is the way our brains work. Neuroscientists have clearly identified that our brains are fundamentally protective, defensive mechanisms. If your ego and sense of self is threatened, your brain unconsciously will act to protect and defend, either actively or passively.

John Cacioppo, at the University of Chicago was able to demonstrate in a series of experiments that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Cacioppo's research was consistent with that of Tiffany Ito and he colleagues at Ohio State University, whose research confirmed the brain's stronger response to negative information.

Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason-to keep us out of harm's way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.

Nowhere does negative or constructive criticism appear more frequently than in performance reviews of employees. The prevailing theory is that criticism, which invariably is part of the performance review, will improve the employee's performance, and in addition the employee will positively welcome it. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Second only to firing an employee, managers rate performance appraisals as the task they dislike the most. In fact, neuroscience research has shown that providing negative performance appraisal feedback causes actual physical pain to both the employee and the manager. The reality is that the traditional performance appraisal as practiced in the majority of organizations today is fundamentally flawed, and incongruent with our values-based, vision-driven and collaborative work environments.

Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor, says that performance evaluations do more harm than good. A 1998 study by Development Dimensions Incorporated, found that employers themselves expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with performance reviews. The consulting firm, People IQ, in a 2005 national survey, found that 87% of employees and managers felt performance reviews were neither useful nor effective. In an article published in The Psychological Bulletin, psychologists A. Kluger and A. Denisi report completion of a meta-analysis of 607 studies of performance evaluations and concluded that at least 30% of the performance reviews ended up in decreased employee performance.

Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins, in their book, Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What To Do Instead, detail studies that clearly show performance appraisals do not work and outline what could replace them. Garold Markle, in his book, Catalytic Coaching: The End of The Performance Review, argues that performance reviews have reached the end of their utility and should be replaced with a manager-employee coaching system.

Literature abounds with systems and strategies for giving constructive criticism, and consultants have made lucrative livings implementing such systems in organizations, despite how flawed there are. Perhaps the silliest component of these systems is to suggest to the person giving the constructive feedback to "sandwich it" between positive statements, as if the person receiving the feedback will focus on the positive part  of the sandwich, and not the negative. Again, this ignores the brain's programmed preference to respond to negative information.

The reality is that constructive criticism is an oxymoron. All criticism is inherently destructive and negative, however we may attempt to window dress it, or "sandwich it" between positive statements. Anything constructive is associated with growth, which requires a person to be open, not in a defensive state of mind. When put together, these two ideas constitute an oxymoron.

To be in an open, receiving state of mind, the feedback must be positive, or at least guide the recipient to self-awareness and self-discovery.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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