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A Return to “Treat’em Mean and Keep’em Keen” Management?

Tough bosses and negative feedback do not improve performance

Recently there has been a flurry of articles which promote the idea that employees want to receive “constructive criticism,” or “negative feedback,” and that employees prefer “tough love” by managers. Such claims are retrograde and ignore recent neuroscience and motivation research that clearly show positive feedback and encouragement improve performance.

For example, a Harvard Business Review blog article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman argues, based on survey data “giving negative feedback tends to the most avoided dimension” of feedback, based on the conclusion that “negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” Such a conclusion is huge leap. In fact, there is no evidence to support the proposition that corrective or “constructive” feedback improves performance. And the proviso given by Zenger and Folkman—“if delivered appropriately,” leaves a hole in the argument as big as the Grand Canyon. Many research studies have shown that few managers know how to give appropriate positive feedback, let alone negative or “constructive feedback.”

In a similar vein, Laura Stack, writing in HR Insights, says, “Criticism can be difficult to hear, but pain helps us learn and improve ourselves, “ and “So listen and act on constructive criticism,” and suggests to her readers to just “calmly absorb the criticism graciously.” And Jacquelyn Smith, writing in Forbes, outlines “8 Ways Negative Feedback Can Lead To Greater Success At Work,”

In an article in Management Issues, author Nic Paton contends “it is hard taskmasters who are not afraid to crack the whip to get the job done that are most valued by employees,” citing a study by the U.K. Institute of Leadership & Management of 1,500 managers. However, the conclusion was not reached based on how employees felt about that issue. Paton goes on to cite a University of Chicago study by Steven Kaplan which suggested that “hard-nosed” CEOs were preferred. However, when you examine the study carefully, it should be noted that the study is in reference to VC and “buyout” companies only, which presents a very different dynamic to the bulk of research which identifies positive interpersonal skills as a key trait of successful leaders.

While these perspectives may be mildly interesting and harken us back a half century to management theories supporting the command and control or “carrot-and-stick” approach to management, they are hardly in keeping with the massive amount of research to the contrary.

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. Receiving a critical, negative performance review or feedback will unconsciously and automatically trigger the brain’s defensive mechanisms.

As Peter Economy, the author of Managing for Dummies, The Management Bible and more than 60 other books wrote recently in Inc. magazine, “people-centered businesses often outperform their profit-centered counterparts seven ways to unleash the full potential of your people.” Daniel Goleman, author of the best selling book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, and winner of the McKinsey award for the best article of the year, “The Focused Leader,” in HBR, argues, “Studies conducted by companies evaluating their own executives have proven that the top 10 percent of performers displayed superior competencies in emotional intelligence,” which includes empathy and a focus on teamwork.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink, describes what he says is "the surprising truth" about what motivates us. Pink concludes that extrinsic motivators work only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances; rewards often destroy creativity and employee performance; and the secret to high performance isn’t reward and punishment but that unseen intrinsic drive—the drive to do something  because it is meaningful. Pink says that true motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us, and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink, joining a chorus of many others, warns that the traditional "command-and-control" management methods in which organizations use money as a contingent reward for a task, are not only ineffective as motivators, but are actually harmful.

Why do employees quit their jobs, and have problems with engagement? Leigh Branham, author of 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave analyzed over 20,000 anonymous surveys asking employees why they left their last job. Although most managers believe pay is the primary reason people quit, Branham discovered that the number one reason actually is “loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders.” And that loss of trust is often correlated to abusive bosses. And a study by the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies concluded “There is little doubt that employee engagement can be strengthened by fairness and its related elements, just as employee engagement can be weakened by unfairness and the like. As both the workforce and the workplace evolve, organizations may find that in order to win the “war for talent,” they must first win the battle for employees’ hearts.” 

In my articles in The Financial Post and Psychology Today, “Why We Need Kind and Compassionate Leaders,” I said, “Leaders in business schools, organizations and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts. Leaders are expected to be strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line business people who focus on results. Yet, recent research on successful leaders and the current turbulent economic and social times calls out for a different style of leader—one that exhibits kindness, compassion and empathy.” These descriptions are antithetical to the stereotype hard-nosed, tough, aggressive boss driven only by bottom-line results and not hesitant to give employees negative and critical feedback. Haven’t the workplace and employees suffered enough from that style of management?

When are management theorists and their media pundits going to catch up with 21st century research on human motivation and brain research? “Treat’em mean and keep’em keen” is a practice that needs to die a natural death.

Follow me on Twitter: @raybwilliams

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

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