3 Old Assumptions That Haunt Feedback And Halt Progress

November 3, 2020

ZFCO- leadership feedback

I have been studying and analyzing feedback for much of my adult life. Having been at the forefront of administering 360-degree assessments, I was always fascinated by what happened when you provided people with a feedback report that summarized feedback from 15 or more colleagues in the organization. Most would immediately open the report and start turning pages as if they were looking for something specific. I would often ask, “What are you searching for?” They would reply with something like, “I am looking for how I can get better.” Indeed, they were looking for the bad news or what was wrong with them. This energy to understand weaknesses initially caused me to conclude that the most significant benefit a 360 assessment could provide was a clear understanding of a person’s weaknesses. I began to assume that if they could identify and improve one or two of those weaknesses, they would be more effective leaders.

Old Assumption 1: The best way for leaders to improve is to identify weaknesses and fix them.

Then, my research partner Jack Zenger and I made a fantastic discovery. We looked at the best leaders we had assessed and asked the question, “What is the difference between those who were good and those who were great leaders? It turns out that the great leaders did a few things exceptionally well, while good leaders were working hard trying to be good or at least adequate at everything. In 70% of cases, we found that leaders were better off focusing on building their strengths rather than fixing their weaknesses. In only 30% of cases, a focus on improving weaknesses was a better approach.

New Assumption 1: In most cases, leaders ought to focus their development efforts on building strengths.

What kind of feedback do people want?

We gathered data from a global population of 12,362 people and asked them, “If negative feedback is delivered appropriately, does it help people improve performance?” 93% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.

  1. Being given specific, constructive suggestions about how to improve.
  2. Being given regular recognition and praise.

We found that 82% of respondents chose option “A.”

These responses led us and others to harbor an incorrect assumption:

Old Assumption 2. “People want and need negative or corrective feedback to improve.”

As we spent time studying feedback, we began to question whether what people said about the feedback they wanted to receive was indeed accurate. Or, was this a case of them saying what they thought they should want and what the organization wanted them to receive. After all, much of traditional performance management was based on a periodic appraisal, which was often focused on the negative parts of the person’s performance. Worse yet, was this response driven by the fact that this was the kind of feedback that people were accustomed to receiving from their boss? This led us to study what kind of feedback bosses prefer giving.

We assessed leaders on their preference for giving or avoiding positive or negative feedback to others. We discovered that 62% of the 12,683 leaders preferred giving people negative feedback, and 36% avoided giving people positive feedback. Independently, we gathered 360-degree assessment data on 1,005 of these leaders to understand the impact of their feedback preference on their effectiveness, as rated by others. We divided this latter group of leaders into four groups based on their stated preferences. Note in the graph below each leader was assessed on their ability to give honest feedback in a helpful way. The most negatively rated group were those leaders who said they avoided giving positive feedback and preferred to give negative feedback.

Note that leaders who avoided giving negative feedback but preferred to give positive feedback were rated at the 51stpercentile along with the group that preferred giving both positive and negative feedback. (Statistical tests on the differences were statistically significant.*)

We found very similar results when leaders were assessed on “developing others” and on an “overall leadership effectiveness” rating. This research caused us to change our assumptions about how managers should give feedback. Even though direct reports say they want negative feedback, if that is largely all they get, they assume they should want it and utilize it. Managers should lead with positive feedback, and if they give enough positive, then they can also include some negative or corrective feedback. The reality is that when leaders avoid positive feedback and prefer only giving negative feedback, it hurts their effectiveness.

New Assumption 2. “The majority of feedback from a manager should be positive. Once enough positive feedback is given, then negative or corrective feedback can be helpful.”

How Individuals Should Think about Feedback for Themselves

Since our old initial assumptions were often wrong about feedback, we decided to learn from the data. Based on what we had learned, we created a new assumption about receiving feedback. This new assumption proved to be wrong. Hang on; this gets complicated.

Logical Assumption 3. People will be better off if they look for and embrace feedback.

We had learned from our experience about the power of positive feedback. Using the analysis of data from 1,225 leaders (who were assessed on both their feedback assumptions and their 360-degree effectiveness as rated by others) we studied the impact of feedback on the recipients.

We were interested in the results on their ability to “Make a real effort to change based on feedback from others.” To our surprise, the group with the lowest effectiveness rating was the group that avoided receiving negative feedback and preferred to receive only positive. As you can see in the graph below, the leaders were divided into four groups based on their preference for receiving or avoiding positive and negative feedback. The two groups with the most favorable results were those who were open to receiving negative feedback. The largest group, with 72% of all respondents, was the group who were open to both kinds of feedback. Those who made the greatest effort to change were those who, presumably, had received both kinds of feedback. What this study revealed was the reality that we all make mistakes, and therefore, we all have areas needing improvement. Being open to learning about these improvement areas is very beneficial. Fortunately, that group was nearly 3/4th of all respondents. Differences were statistically significant between three groups in the graph below. **

New Assumption 3. People will be better off if they are open to the possibility of receiving negative feedback.


This article might be a little confusing, but we have learned a great deal about feedback and changed many of our assumptions. The bottom line here is:

·       Leaders with strengths are much more effective.

·       Managers should focus most of their feedback on the positive with some occasional negative feedback.

·       Individuals need to be open to learning about what they can do to improve.

·       It is true that “feedback is a gift” but in order to have your gift of feedback be appreciated and utilized, consider the three assumptions listed above.

-Joe Folkman

Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website. Sign up for our Newsletter for podcast updates and information on our Monthly Leadership Webinar Series.

Other Articles and Podcasts about Feedback 

10 Attitudes About Feedback From The Most Effective Leaders


Episode 7: The Enigma of Positive and Negative Feedback 

ZFCO Episode 7
The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast Episode 7

(Article first appeared on Forbes.)

*Anova F=14.309, Sig. 0.000, Post Hoc Tests indicate significant differences between the results of the (-) avoids giving positive/give negative and the (+) give positive/avoids giving negative and the (+) gives positive/gives negative groups).

** T-Tests showed a significant difference between the (+)Avoids Receiving Positive/Prefers Negative (200) and the (-)Prefers Positive/Avoids Receiving Negative (54). There was also a significant difference between (-)Prefers Positive/Avoids Receiving Negative (54) and (+)Prefers Positive/Prefers Negative (953).

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