Sunday MBA

Negative feedback is sometimes for the best

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from the Harvard Business Review.

If I see one more article about how you should never be “critical” or “negative” when giving feedback to an employee or colleague, I think my head will explode.

Avoiding negative feedback is both wrongheaded and dangerous. Wrongheaded because, when delivered the right way, criticism is in fact highly motivating. Dangerous because without awareness of the mistakes they are making, no one can possibly improve. Staying “positive” when doling out feedback will only get you so far.

Research by Stacey Finkelstein from Columbia University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago sheds light on this seemingly paradoxical nature of feedback by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate.


It’s important to begin by understanding the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Praise (for instance, “Here’s what you did really well”) increases commitment to the work you do by enhancing both your experience and your confidence.

A more critical assessment (for example, “Here’s where you went wrong”), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort and offers insight into how you might improve.

Given these two different functions, positive and negative feedback should be more effective (and more motivating) for different people at different times. For instance, when you don’t really know what you are doing, encouragement helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need.

But when you are an expert and you already more or less know what you are doing, it’s constructive criticism that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.


As Finkelstein and Fishbach show, novices and experts are indeed looking for, and motivated by, different kinds of information. In one of their studies, American students taking either beginner or advanced-level French classes were asked whether they would prefer an instructor who emphasized what they were doing right or what they were doing wrong .

Beginners overwhelmingly preferred a cheerleading, strength-focused instructor. Advanced students preferred a more critical instructor who would help them develop their weaker skills.

In a second study, the researchers looked at a very different behavior: engaging in environmentally friendly actions. Their “experts” were members of environmental organizations (for instance, Greenpeace), while their “novices” were nonmembers.

Each participant in the study made a list of the actions they regularly took that helped the environment — things like recycling, avoiding bottled water, and taking shorter showers. They were offered feedback from an environmental consultant on the effectiveness of their actions and were given a choice: Would you prefer to know more about the actions you take that are effective, or about the actions you take that are not?

Experts were much more likely to choose the negative feedback — about ineffective actions — than novices.

Taken together, these studies show that people who are experienced in a given domain — people who already have developed some knowledge and skills — don’t actually live in fear of negative feedback. Intuitively they realize that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know.


I’m not suggesting that you never tell rookies about their mistakes, or that you never praise seasoned professionals for their outstanding work. And of course, negative feedback should always be accompanied by good advice and given with tact.

But I am suggesting that piling on praise is a more effective motivator for the rookie than the pro. And I’m saying, point blank, that you shouldn’t worry so much when it comes to identifying mistakes with someone experienced. Negative feedback won’t crush their confidence — it just might give them the information they need to take their performance to the next level.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review. Excerpted from The HBR Guide to Delivering Effective Feedback. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.