Surprising Research Says Negative Feedback Is Effective (and We Might Even Prefer It)

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Jul 24, 2017

Few people like hearing bad news about themselves. Getting a tough performance review or being called out for a mistake challenges our status and triggers feelings of shame, frustration, and helplessness. Negative feedback floods the brain with stress-inducing hormones that raise our threat awareness and causes a momentary loss of executive functioning.

If an unfavorable report makes you think you’ve lost your mind, it’s probably because you have.

But before we write off the criticisms we receive from bosses and friends, here’s the surprising part about negative feedback: It might actually be good for us.

Negative feedback fuels creativity

For starters, the sting of a harsh review can produce a temporary boost in creativity. Researchers at Columbia Business School found a strong link between artistic expression and the social rejection that’s often brought on by negative feedback. While it may seem counterintuitive, we do our best creative work when we feel most vulnerable.

Case in point: After getting critiqued for their public speaking skills, a group of young professionals competed to see who could design the most imaginative collages. Participants who struck out on their speeches ended up producing more original and colorful work than those with better oratory scores. Not coincidentally, the aftershocks of negative feedback helped clear the way for sharper inner focus and creative planning. What started as disappointment soon turned to determination.

Negative feedback can raise performance

In a survey by leadership firm Zenger Folkman, nearly one thousand employees supported the idea of receiving negative feedback at work. By roughly a three-to-one margin, they indicated that getting suggestions for improvement and being alerted to mistakes did more to raise their performance than positive feedback and praise. When asked to name something that could help advance their careers, fully 72% thought their performance would improve with more frequent and authentic appraisals from managers – even if that meant swallowing difficult news along the way.

These numbers highlight a second upside to negative feedback: Experienced workers prefer to hear it. Given their field knowledge and expertise, seasoned employees aren’t necessarily looking for reassurance, but realignment – useful bits of information that fine-tune their performance and sense of progress.

Unlike novice workers, who crave affirmation through glowing feedback, battle-tested individuals don’t mind the occasional poke in their performance.

Negative feedback is more helpful

That dynamic seems to play out beyond the workplace as well. Management experts at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that advanced-level students in a French literature class favored teachers who hammered them with corrective feedback over those who took a gentler approach. In a related study, researchers learned that nail-care “experts” – women who claimed to use multiple nail-care products and visit beauty parlors several times a month – were more likely to seek out negative feedback about their choice of nail color and general beauty habits, and were also more likely to act on negative feedback by paying more for manicures or changing beauty parlors entirely.

Which brings us to a final benefit of negative feedback – namely, that it is more likely to produce a positive change in behavior. Because we tend to ignore other people’s advice – as much as 70% of the time, according to one estimate – only a fraction of the potentially useful feedback we receive gets transferred into practice. With its rough edges, negative feedback takes on an added sense of urgency that increases our self-awareness and the possibility that something good may come from it.

The Cleveland Clinic case study

And it’s not only individuals who stand to improve. Negative feedback can bring about positive change across organizations, too. A prominent example is the Cleveland Clinic, arguably one of the best treatment centers in the world.

In 2008, the Clinic received a troubling report on patient experience from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: It placed near the bottom of CMS hospital rankings in areas like room cleanliness, staff responsiveness and caregiver communication. Suddenly, a medical center famous for delivering breakthrough cures had been diagnosed with a chronic ailment of its own: negative patient feedback.

Looking for a fix, Cleveland Clinic systematically overhauled its operational and caregiving practices. It mandated hourly rounding on patients (uncommon at the time), organized weekly huddles among personnel on the floor, and streamlined communication between caregivers.

Three years later, the Clinic received a clean bill of health: Its overall ranking in patient satisfaction climbed among the top 8% of more than 4,000 hospitals surveyed and its “Patients First” mantra has become a gold standard in the healthcare industry.

Needless to say, it’s never easy sharing negative feedback with co-workers, friends and loved ones. It becomes slightly less mortifying once we see how it points others towards positive outcomes and opportunities for growth, which is the reason we bothered giving feedback in the first place. They might not appreciate it at the time, but they’ll probably thank us for it later.

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