The Startup
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The secret of giving and receiving better (negative) feedback

and in which cases it might not be working at all

We all have participated in exchanging feedback with others, may it be casually, in a professional context or as part of a peer review process. We have figured it out by now.

First, you say the things that went well, then you add the things that could be improved upon.

Maybe your company has a more elaborate structure or practices some version of “I like, I wish, I wonder”, or even using “Nonviolent Communication” patterns. It is important to talk about ideas, performance, and events in a clear and concise manner, right?

You have also learned how to deal with negative feedback: take a close look at yourself, then focus on the areas that should be improved and work with more motivation.

And you do expect the same from your colleagues. When you provide feedback that is not uniquely positive, you are doing in their best interests, pointing them where you might see are for improvement, things that they might not be aware of. And of course, you would like them to address those issues in their daily work from now on.

The problem is: negative feedback alone isn’t working and it may even be hurting your social structure.

In the last issue of the Harvard Business Review, there was an interview with Paul Green, who is a doctorate at the Harvard Business School. He talks about his research on feedback and peer-review. The conclusion:

“Negative Feedback Rarely Leeds to Improvement.”

What the researchers observed: employees that receive negative/ disconfirming feedback are more likely to look for new social connections, instead of going back to the person who originally gave the feedback.

Green calls this “shopping for confirmation”:

“Shopping for confirmation is grounded in the idea that a positive view of one’s self requires social connections that help us sustain that view. If we don’t have them, we’ll look for them.”

In this case, when you are received negative or “disconfirming” words from a friend or colleague, you are more likely to look for affirmative relationships, instead of thinking hard and long about their words, turning them into self-improvement (as we think we are doing).

This holds true for giving feedback of course: whoever you are giving non-positive feedback to might be inclined to look for other relationships, other affirmations.

Luckily, we are not helpless slaves to our psyche and there is a way to cancel out the “shopping for confirmation” effect.

Green’s research showed that negative feedback is not causing you to turn from the giver when you have the feeling that your overall value is greatly appreciated.

Getting validation about our role and importance in the company (or group) is the key to being able to process the negative feedback.

This can also be achieved by having the receiving party reflect upon their values (as shown in the research).

It makes sense: you can also create this validation from your own values, putting the feedback you received in a larger context.

And the validation you give and receive, of course, needs to be genuine, there is no place for “empty” phrases and platitudes.

Translating this insight into practice isn’t easy. There are several systems to shape feedback communication (such as the above mentioned Nonviolent Communication) and it can help to have one of those systems in place.

And as the research has shown, it is important to build a culture of validation and trust in the company.

Literally, if there is little or no validation, you just tend to walk away from disconfirming feedback, making it rather useless.

But if there is trust and you actually feel valued and important, negative feedback can be processed more easily and honestly.

Read the full article over at the HBR website.

Thanks for reading!

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Sebastian Martin

Sebastian Martin

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Multi-potentialite / writer / artist/ coder / reader / lifelong learner, from Munich, Germany.