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Negative Feedback and Its Impact on Performance Review

By Mary Graves, Ph.D.
April 24, 2014

In a revealing New York Times article from 2012, writer Alina Tugend interviewed several academics and authors who have recently drawn on decades of research to observe a curious but enduring fact about human beings: negative thoughts, negative emotions, and negative self-perceptions have a more powerful and persistent effect on us than do their positive counterparts.

Particularly when it comes to being criticized, we tend to fully absorb negative feedback while letting positive feedback slough off our shoulders like rain from a large umbrella.

"Bad Is Stronger Than Good" is the title of one such research paper by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. In it, he states: "Bad emotions,
bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones."

This phenomenon has major implications not only for our relationships with others and ourselves, but also for the workplace and the subject of performance reviews.

"If employees tend to more strongly remember and carry with them negative feedback, things can go upside down very quickly in even the most well-intended Performance Review Process."
As much dread and hesitation as performance reviews sometimes cause in all parties, it is good to remember that their purpose is to help employees truly "enjoy" more successful and productive work lives that benefit them and their company. But despite the best efforts of managers to offer sufficient positive feedback to keep employees buoyant and wanting to come to work the following day, if employees tend to more strongly remember and carry with them negative feedback, things can go upside down very quickly in even the most well-intended Performance Review Process.

To counteract this tendency, Baumeister suggests a ratio of 5-1 positive-to-negative feedback for employees, since it takes that much positive input to overcome the power of the negative.

Sometimes, performance reviews are less than fully honest because managers fear a negative reaction that will cause employees to become less rather than more engaged with improving their performance. Defensiveness in the face of even perceived attack is an all-too-human quality, which is probably the major reason why both personal and cultural change is so slow and must be handled with such delicacy.

One of the key ways we have worked around these very human tendencies toward over-sensitivity and defensiveness at Hybrid Management is to structure the Performance Review Process as a two-way process in which neither managers nor employees focus on "evaluating" or critiquing performance as such.

Instead, both parties indicate the most important "requests" each of them has of the other—requests that would help make their jobs easier, improve everyone's performance, and thus contribute to improving the company's bottom line. Not the manager saying, "I need you to stop wasting so much time," but instead, "I need you to make at least 10 sales calls a day."

And from the employee, not: "I dislike it when you count and hover over my every call," but instead: "I need more independence in structuring my day so I can get the calls done while still tending to my other tasks."

Both parties then list the expected goals/outcomes of their requests and then set about trying to achieve them, in a climate of positive mutual regard.

I'll pick up more of these threads in future posts. Human nature is far too interesting, with too many applications for the workplace, to leave only to social psychologists!

See previous post: Management by Unstated Objectives


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