Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Recently, I edited some work for a colleague, embellishing her document with comments and marked up changes. In response, she said that getting feedback from me was like going to the dentist. She knew it was good for her, but ….
Telling People What to Keep
Obviously, I hadn’t given her very effective feedback. There were some very good things in that paper, but I read right past them, assuming they did not need my attention because I was supposed to focus on what needed fixing. I have even been trained to know better, having studied the Writer’s Workshop approach to feedback. First you pay attention to what’s right in a piece of work, as noted by Richard Gabriel:
“So, imagine that each author goes home with some areas of his or her paper painted red and accompanied by suggestions for improvement. What is that author to make of the places not painted red? Were they OK? Are they available for alteration to help improve the red areas? Are some of them not OK but the workshop just didn’t get to them?”
Reading and responding with an eye toward what’s good is a practice that takes discipline. Our minds quickly find faults and errors. It takes effort to go back and describe what’s right. I think of it as telling people what should stay, even if everything else changes. Otherwise they might unintentionally throw out the good things as they fix the problems.
Feedback that Leads to Higher Goals
Positive feedback not only builds natural strengths, it fosters positive emotion. According to a study by Seo and Ilies, people working toward goals who experience positive emotion associated with their work spend more time and achieve a higher level of performance. They experience greater self-efficacy, and tend to adjust their goals upward.
As managers, we think that pointing out mistakes or weaknesses will help people stretch to meet their goals. But Seo and Ilies point out that when the feedback comes with a high level of negative emotion, the person feeling criticized may instead just adjust goals downwards.
Specificity in Positive Feedback
Positive feedback is not just a buffer for negative feedback. Positive feedback has to be as specific and meaningful as the negative feedback. Yesterday, a friend expressed great frustration about his first annual appraisal at work. His manager had just said, “Great work. Keep it up.” But what could he learn from that? What if the manager had said instead, “You finish your projects on time, your documents are clearly written, you check your facts so I can trust what you say, ….”
Specificity in Negative Feedback
What about negative feedback? Our students at the University of Maryland are pretty emphatic that they don’t want their managers to give them only positive feedback. They feel that negative feedback gives them a chance to learn. So what makes the best negative feedback?
It has to be specific. In a study of feedback on grading papers, Lipnevic found, “The most pervasive and strongest finding of the study was that descriptive feedback specific to individual work is critical to students’ improvement.” You can give descriptive feedback when you summarize the message of the essay and point out specific sections to change.
Give the Receiver a Voice
Lizzio and colleagues evaluated negative feedback styles in the workplace. They note that many managers are uncomfortable giving negative feedback, and avoid it — to the detriment of both the individual and the organization. So they based their evaluation on both effectiveness and feasibility. They were looking for an approach that managers could learn easily and practice reliably.
They studied giving negative feedback alone and in various combinations with positive feedback/reassurance, self-appraisal, and giving the receiver a voice. Giving a voice means actively and genuinely inviting a response. The approach judged both most effective and most feasible was giving negative feedback accompanied by giving the receiver a voice. This way, the receiver could clear up confusions by asking questions and correct any mistaken judgments. Using all four approaches together was even more effective, but was also more complex and therefore not considered as feasible.
Giving the receiver a voice can also avoid unexpected consequences. Sometimes simple suggestions hook up with unrelated receiver memories, bringing up powerful negative responses. Recently, I was in the middle of a presentation, and someone suggested that I should smile more. To me, that statement brought up the intense discomfort of being asked to smile for the camera in excruciating childhood photo shoots, the disappointment of seeing my wooden face in the resulting photos, and the resulting lack of self-efficacy. But what if this feedback had been given in a more relaxed setting, and I’d been asked to reflect back what I heard? I am sure together we would have dispelled the discouraging negative wallop of emotion I took away from it.
Not “Be More Like Me” But “Reach for the Best of You”
With one-sided negative feedback, many people feel the manager is saying “Be more like me.” When given a voice, they can reflect back the feedback in more personal terms, perhaps helping the manager become more aware of their personal styles and needs.
Jocelyn Davis, my co-instructor at the University of Maryland says,
“Feedback is founded on the expectation and the belief that the person wants to make changes and is able to if only aware of need for them.”
Giving the receiver a voice makes feedback a bilateral interaction that can build the relationship. With the best feedback, I think I get an increased sense of trust and respect and gratitude because I see that the giver believes I WANT to change and even more, is telling me that I CAN change for the better.
Gabriel, R. (2002). Writers’ Workshops & the Work of Making Things: Patterns, Poetry… Also available online for download.
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Lipnevich, A. (2009). Response to assessment feedback: The effects of grades, praise, and source of information. Dissertation at Rutgers. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2604. (I read the abstract only.)
Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., & MacKay, L. (2008). Managers’ and Subordinates’ Evaluations of Feedback Strategies: The Critical Contribution of Voice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, , 38 (4), 919–946.
Seo, M. & Remus, I. (2009). The role of self-efficacy, goal, and affect in dynamic motivational self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109, 120–133.
“Hypothesis 2: Positive and negative affect will partially mediate the relationship between performance feedback and subsequent goals within individuals.
We found evidence for both downward goal revision following negative feedback, and upward goal revision (discrepancy creation) following positive feedback.”
I also have 6 blog postings on feedback, carrying these ideas a little further: Positive Psychology Reflections, Category Giving Feedback
smiley grading courtesy of MinvanNinja
light as air courtesy of aussiegall
coloring in the lines courtesy of woodleywonderworks
outlining courtesy of adactio
manager giving feedback courtesy of star5112