New Research Shows The Benefits Of Positive Leadership

November 16, 2020


We asked 12,538 people, ”Which has been more helpful in your career?”

  1. Negative or corrective feedback.
  2. Positive or reinforcing feedback.

The responses were almost evenly split, with 44% selecting negative and 56% selecting positive. Some felt that the feedback that made their career was when someone pointed out their weaknesses, and others knew that the feedback that highlighted their strengths was the most impactful.

What surprised me about the two answers was its impact on how differently people evaluated others, given their responses to this simple question. In simple terms, I wanted to see the correlation between their feedback preferences and their overall leadership effectiveness ratings. (In this combined dataset, we had 529 cases for negative preference and 1,018 on positive preference.

In both cases, those who believe that negative feedback was most helpful were rated as less-effective leaders and had direct reports whose employee engagement score was significantly lower. It makes you wonder.

Leadership Effectiveness and Employee Engagement ZFCO

*= T-value 2.16, Sig. 0.01, **=T-value 1.97, Sig. 0.05

So, I decided to do some additional analysis on individual leadership competencies. This result surprised me even more; it turns out that leaders who felt positive feedback was more helpful had significantly higher ratings on 10 of the 16 competencies I measured. The competencies that showed the biggest differences were centered around interpersonal skills, integrity and honesty, and learning agility. In the graph below, I showed the 10 competencies rated significantly lower for those who felt that negative feedback was helpful in their careers.

Positive Leadership vs Negative Leadership ZFCO

Does the Belief that Negative Feedback is Most Helpful Impact How Leaders Behave?

Clearly, our data shows that the belief of negative feedback being more helpful lowers others’ ratings on a leader’s effectiveness. If you think that negative feedback is what helped you, then that is the type of feedback you instinctively give to others. But what you have not considered is that what was helpful to YOU, may not be helpful to them. Maybe that team member is struggling and trying to discover what they are good at and what contribution they can make to the organization. Maybe they have lost their passion for their job. Maybe work sometimes feels like a day prison. One more “helpful correction” may not be what they need to succeed in these instances.

In our feedback preference self-assessment, leaders who believed that negative feedback was more helpful indicated:

– they had a significantly lower preference to receive positive feedback,

– they preferred not to give positive feedback to others,

– and they had a significantly higher tendency to give others negative feedback.

Throughout my career, I have tried to be diplomatic in calling out the need for both kinds of feedback. However, this research and other research I have done in the past, persuade me that the more excellent value lies in giving others an abundance of positive feedback.

Creating a Developmental Climate

Let me paint the picture more clearly for you, based on what I have observed in many organizations. When leaders tend to give mostly negative feedback, direct reports assume that their manager is only interested in catching them doing something wrong. With that approach, direct reports start to believe their manager is not interested in their development and has no desire to help team members succeed. Often they think the manager is biased because they always recognize mistakes but rarely recognize accomplishments. The net result of this is that the engagement level of direct reports is lower, their motivation is lower, and their discretionary effort is significantly reduced.

Leaders who tend to give positive feedback create a very different culture. Direct reports quickly assume that their leader is looking out for them and trying to help them succeed. Their leader is on their side and has their best interest at heart. Occasionally, these leaders will provide some negative feedback, but because direct reports believe the manager has their best interest at heart, they are much more willing to listen and change.

The Exception to the Rule

My research found one instance where believing in negative feedback’s value did have a positive effect. Leaders who are open and willing to receiving negative feedback were rated as significantly better leaders. I am going to stress the word “open” right now. While negative feedback may not be the type you prefer to hear, you must always remain open to hearing it. Those around you need to know they can give you corrective feedback and you will act on it.

Some Words of Advice

One more time, I want to emphasize that while the belief that negative feedback is helpful for you, extrapolating that to assume that others need more negative feedback is dangerous and damaging to others and yourself.

We are living in a world that rewards negativity with likes, clicks, and loads of attention. Positive feedback often goes unnoticed by the masses but not by the individuals who receive it. I hope this study has proven to you that kindness and positivity are rewarded in leadership. Be open to correction and give your positive praises, compliments, and accolades abundantly.

-Joe Folkman

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Other Articles and Podcasts about Feedback 

Episode 7: The Enigma of Positive and Negative Feedback

ZFCO Episode 7

Why is it so Difficult for Leaders to Give Positive Feedback 

Attitude about feedback