I came across a useful short article in the New York Times by Alina Tugend summarising research into the effects of ‘bad’ events (setbacks, losses, criticism) versus ‘good’ events (progress, gains, praise): Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall. This is a quick summary of the main points that emerged, plus some thoughts about the implications for giving feedback.

  • Nearly everyone remembers unpleasant events more strongly and in more detail than pleasant ones, and ruminates over them longer.
  • We see people who say negative things as smarter than those who say positive things.
  • Negative feedback has more impact than positive feedback. We give greater weight to criticism, and remember them much more.
  • Setbacks at work reduce happiness more than twice as much as progress increases happiness.
  • Setbacks also increase frustration three times as much as progress reduces it.

These are generalisations of course, and apply to most people (but not all) most of the time.  In fact Stanford professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers quoted in the article, says “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

This is unfortunate from a performance point of view, as work by Barbara Fredrickson and Alice Isen among others has established that positive emotion improves our cognitive abilities, including creativity, information uptake, and the ability to think strategically, as well as our resilience. So overly critical feedback, focusing on weaknesses and problems, and a ‘negative’ emotional climate at work are going to degrade people’s abilities to do something about those very weaknesses and problems, and make it harder to bring about necessary changes – at every level from the personal right up to the organisational.

What can we do about it? How can we deliver necessary feedback in a way that actually works, and doesn’t leave the recipient brooding on the negative aspects of feedback (and ignoring any positive aspects which may be equally or more important) and in the wrong emotional state to make the changes required?

Also, how can teams and organisations solve problems and improve performance if discussing and thinking about the problems and weaknesses is going to drag their emotional state down so they are less able to remedy them?

Implications for feedback

The first thing to note about these findings is that they pretty much torpedo the ‘feedback sandwich’ approach, which involves delivering some praise, then the criticism, then finishing off with some more praise to make the recipient feel better. Most times it won’t work, because the recipient will focus on the criticism far more than the praise. Plus, if every criticism is preceded by praise, after a few instances people will learn to batten down their emotional hatches for the expected criticism every time someone praises them.

The findings also suggest that we can only take in one piece of critical feedback at a time. Professor Nass says “I have stopped people and told them, ‘Let me think about this.’ I’m willing to hear more criticism but not all at one time” – which seems like a good strategy when you’re on the receiving end of critical feedback.

Plus, the feedback should stick to the facts and not carry what Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations calls an ’emotional payload’, to minimise the bad feelings around critical feedback.

I’m pleased to say that even though it was developed before I was aware of all of these findings, the STIRS model for delivering emotionally intelligent feedback still holds up.

Other articles about feedback:

What Research Says About How To Give Feedback

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