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Winifred Lender: Negative Feedback Is Important to Give and Good to Receive

Negative feedback, or highlighting errors or areas of potential improvement, conjures up all sorts of thoughts and emotions. Most people report feeling anxiety and fear when they hear these words. Others note that the words cause them to feel depressed and lacking in self-esteem. Regardless of your immediate reaction to negative feedback, it is important to know that negative feedback, when delivered correctly, is actually important to give and good to receive.

In our modern-day U.S. culture, where there has been an increasing focus on making people feel good about their performance, giving trophies for participation and calling everyone a “winner,” many find it hard to give and take negative feedback. Negative feedback need not be aggressive or unkind; rather, it can be focused information on areas for improvement.

In fact, negative feedback as discussed here is information about someone’s performance that focuses on areas that need improvement and how to progress toward goals. People think of negative feedback as punitive and the opposite of growth promoting. In fact, negative feedback, when presented correctly, is not punitive and actually is growth promoting.

An extensive review of the literature by Stacey Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach in the area of feedback shows that people actually seek out negative feedback and see it as linked to improved performance, when given after a certain level of mastery has been achieved. For example, these researchers reported that French language learners, when asked to select what kind of feedback they would like from their teachers, report they would like a teacher who highlights their mistakes and shows them how to improve, if they are at an advanced level of language acquisition. In contrast, those just beginning to learn French indicate that they prefer a teacher who focuses on their strengths. The advanced learners felt that negative feedback was important to helping them become better in French.

Similarly, Maria Louro and colleagues at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands found that people just starting to lose weight sought out positive reinforcement at first, but later wanted negative feedback, about how they could improve their progress toward their goal.

The switch toward seeking out negative feedback and seeing it as beneficial does not necessarily require a high level of expertise in an area, but can be achieved after a basic level of familiarity and comfort with a task is achieved. For example, Fineklestein and Fishbach found that after several trials of having English speakers copy typed paragraphs in German on the computer, the participants switched from requesting feedback about their correct responses to wanting feedback about their mistakes. While only 50 percent of the participants requested negative feedback after the first typing trial, 82 percent of the participants asked for negative feedback after the sixth trial.

These researchers hypothesize that neophytes in a particular area tend to do best when they receive positive reinforcement as it encourages their commitment to a goal (losing weight, learning French or doing well at a new job); however, more seasoned people with expertise in an area do best when they receive feedback to point out their flaws and help them toward their progress goals.

Even though research bears out the importance of providing negative feedback to support people in progressing toward goals, it is often hard for people to dole out negative feedback. Part of this reluctance may come from an idea that positive feedback best helps people be creative and productive. In fact, research has borne out that positive reinforcement may actually stunt creativity and motivation toward a goal.

As detailed in my previous column ("Can Praise Be Too Much of a Good Thing?"), too much positive feedback can actually blunt the creativity and motivation of children in a school and laboratory situations. Moreover, studies show the more positive feedback that is heaped on people, the less likely they are to be receptive to it and the more likely they will feel that it is invalid.

Even though many fear giving negative feedback, there are benefits for the person who dispenses the negative feedback. By giving feedback that is truthful, people will feel honest and authentic. In addition, when giving negative feedback, we are actually helping improve another person's performance and supporting their journey toward a goal.

Armed with the knowledge that negative feedback, when presented correctly, is a tool to enhance growth and progression to goals, you can move away from any fear and anxiety you might harbor about this type of feedback. Now that you know the benefits of negative feedback for those receiving it and for those dispensing it, here are some tips about how and when to give it.  

Factors to Make Negative Feedback Most Effective

» Keep in mind a person’s familiarity with a task. People just learning a task will do best with positive feedback to increase their commitment, while those more seasoned will do better with negative feedback to help them pursue ongoing goals.

» Make the feedback precise. Be very clear with what you are saying.

» Make the feedback timely. It is best to provide feedback right after the activity you are trying to improve or in close proximity to it.

» Provide the feedback at a time when people are likely to be receptive. Remember that people who are overly tired or frustrated may not be receptive to feedback.

» Provide the feedback in a place where people are likely to be receptive. Often times people will do better receiving feedback privately so their attention is not on others in the area.

» Follow up to ensure your feedback has been heard and is understood. Ask the person you are giving the feedback to summarize what you have said.

» Try to balance the negative feedback with some positive feedback. Remember that providing all negative or all positive feedback all the time is not effective.

» Remind yourself of the benefits of giving and receiving negative feedback, when dispensed correctly. Avoid going to a place of fear or anger. See negative feedback as a tool for growth and progress.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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