February 26, 2020
At a recent event, I asked the audience, “Which is easier, giving positive feedback or negative?” The majority indicated that it was much easier to deliver positive feedback. One participant commented, “It’s not difficult to tell someone they are doing a good job but it’s much harder to say, ‘You really messed up!’”
Using a series of psychometrically valid items, my colleague Jack Zenger and I created a self-assessment that measured a leader’s preference for giving or avoiding the two basic kinds of feedback. Positive feedback is defined as praise and reinforcement. Negative feedback is corrective and points out errors or missed opportunities.
For this study, we gathered a global sample of 8,671 leaders. The self-assessment reveals that 56% of the leaders had a stronger preference for giving negative feedback, 31% preferred giving positive feedback, and 12 were equal in their preference. These results stimulated the question, “Why do leaders prefer giving negative feedback despite describing it as more difficult to give than positive feedback?”
Attitudes And Assumptions
We then asked if the best managers are those who deliver more praise and recognition than negative feedback. Only 33% of leaders who preferred giving negative feedback agreed with the statement, compared to 77% of those that preferred giving positive feedback:
Many leaders assume that the most effective leaders are those that give people the tough, difficult feedback, while those who lavish praise and recognition are weak and ineffective leaders. This is like the assumption at universities that the best professors are those that give very few “A” grades and fail a high percentage of students. Are those professors really the best teachers? Are managers who give more negative feedback than positive really the best managers?
To test this assumption, we combined the results from our self-assessment of feedback preferences with 360-degree evaluations from managers, peers, direct reports, and others around their perceptions of a leader’s effectiveness. The outcome measure we looked at was the overall leadership effectiveness rating, which combines results from competencies that predict leadership success.
Combining the databases gave us 588 leaders where we had results for both assessments. Leaders preferring to give negative feedback had an overall effectiveness rating at the 35th percentile, while those preferring to give positive feedback were at the 47th percentile. We performed a t-test and determined the difference between the two groups was highly statistically significant (t value = 3.395, Sig. 0.001). It turns out the best leaders are those that prefer to give positive feedback.
Why are managers who give more negative feedback rated so poorly?
The data I have collected with Zenger Folkman indicates that when leaders prefer giving negative feedback, it conveys a lack of confidence in their colleagues and a primary focus on what employees might do wrong. These managers are perceived as quick to criticize and very slow to praise. This impacts relationships, trust, and integrity, and indicates that the manager does not have others’ best interest at heart.
Why do some people find it difficult to give positive feedback?
Some leaders are uncomfortable receiving positive feedback, which can result in them not giving positive feedback to others. Many leaders, when given the choice between positive and negative feedback, feel that the negative feedback will be more helpful. However, 71% of people say that they appreciate recognition and praise for a job well done. Many leaders fail to recognize the power of positive feedback and its benefit in motivating others. One concern is that if a leader provides too much positive feedback, the negative feedback will be ignored when delivered. However, our research shows that leaders who have a strong preference for giving positive feedback are rated significantly higher on their ability to “Provide honest feedback in a helpful way.”
I’m not suggesting that managers avoid giving negative feedback, but when there is more positive feedback than negative, direct reports believe that a manager is trying to help them and they are more likely to accept and appreciate negative feedback. In fact, 92% of 8,542 respondents agree that “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”
Factors that increase the amount of positive feedback
Looking at Zenger Folkman’s datasets, I discovered four behaviors that enabled leaders to provide more positive feedback. Improvement of a few of these behaviors will help increase your ability to provide positive feedback.
1. Leaders who are interested in their own development tend to give more positive feedback to others. They have an improve mentality where they believe that because they can improve, others can as well. Leaders who are concerned about their own development tend to ask for feedback and are always open to ideas and suggestions.
2. Consideration for Others. There is a strong correlation between leaders who have a high concern for others and their effectiveness at giving positive feedback. When a leader is focused on negative feedback they are more likely to judge and evaluate others. Leaders who show consideration for others show they want the best for them.
3. Desire to Develop Others. Those who give more positive feedback believe that talent and skills are dynamic and are confident that people can grow and learn new skills. They look for and support development activities for others.
4. Strong Desire to Pull more than Push. Most leaders learn first about push motivation: to set deadlines, to help others be accountable, and to push others to accomplish difficult goals. Those who provide more positive feedback also know how to pull. They get others excited about goals and objectives and inspire others to do more. They recognize others regularly, reward high performance, and are generous with their praise.
Our data provide compelling evidence that when leaders give more positive feedback than negative, they are perceived as more effective leaders. If you think you have developed a habit of focusing on what people do wrong rather than what they do right, try keeping track. Continue to identify problems and illuminate weaknesses, but provide more honest praise when things go well, recognize effort, and thank others for contributions. If you can make this change, you will notice a positive difference in yourself and in others.
—Dr. Joe Folkman
Research from this article was featured in The New York Times, February 24, 2020.
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