“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

Mark Twain

Feedback seems to be pretty important at work–particularly from one’s boss.

Which of these do you think leads to the most disengagement in talent?

1. Little or no feedback

2. Negative feedback

3. Positive feedback

Positive or Negative Feedback?

New research by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) sheds light on the seemingly paradoxical nature of feedback by making it clear why, when, and for whom negative feedback is appropriate. In five studies, they find that novices infer from feedback whether their goals are valuable (commitment), whereas experts infer from feedback whether their pace of pursuing already valuable goals is sufficient (progress).

As a result novices are more likely than experts to seek positive feedback on their strengths and alter their behaviors and attitudes when they get such feedback, whereas experts are more likely than novices to seek negative feedback on their weaknesses and alter their behaviors and attitudes when they get this feedback.

Other research by Zenger and Folkman suggests the age of the employee might also be important when considering the type of feedback given.  In their research they found that 64% of talent under the age of 30 reported finding negative feedback most helpful, but 60% of those 50 or older preferred positive feedback. They also found that culture plays a difference–countries with the strongest preference for negative feedback were Mexico, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, and Brazil (60%-plus preference for negative feedback).

Positive and Negative Feedback

Recent research suggests that being given critical feedback from your boss, having your ideas rejected by other respected colleagues, being made fun of, or being verbally abused all seem to have the same negative impact on our health.

It seems that emotional pain and physical pain both follow the same neuro pathways in our brain and can both lead to the same outcomes of depression, immune suppression and fatigue. In a nifty study by Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues at UCLA using the latest technology called functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), she was able to observe into the inner workings of our brain while a team was involved in a social exercise designed to provoke feelings of social isolation and rejection.

She studied what part of the brain was activated while a group of subjects played a computer game with other individuals they did not know. She created two possibilities of being rejected–either actively or passively (she told them they could not continue because of some technical problems). Comparison of fMRI brain activity in the active exclusion group versus inclusion conditions revealed greater activity in the part of the brain that is associated with physical pain (anterior cingulate cortex). Additionally, the subjects who were rejected also reported feeling psychological distress based on self-report measures ((Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. and Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292)).

Four additional studies show that recall of past socially painful situations elicits greater pain than reliving a past physically painful event and has greater negative impact on cognitively demanding tasks ((Chen, Z., Williams, K., Fitness, J. & Newton, N. (2008). When hurt will not heal. Psychological Science, 19, 789-795)).

So, we know pretty convincingly that negative feedback certainly can be not only harmful to your health but likely to be highly disengaging due to the “sting” we feel whether we consciously associate it with physical pain. And, some evidence also supports the idea that being socially rejected is equally damaging to us.

Positive Versus Negative Feedback Ratios


When we use 360-degree feedback assessments we always include at least 1-2 open-ended questions at the end of the questionnaire asking raters about perceived strengths to leverage and behaviors the leader can do more, less or differently to become even more effective.  Smither and Walker (2004) analyzed the impact of upward feedback ratings as well as narrative comments over a one-year period for 176 managers ((Smither, J. & Walker, A.G. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multirater feedback ratings over time? Personnel Psychology, 89, 575-581)).

They found that those who received a small number of unfavorable behaviorally based comments improved more than other managers but those who received a large number (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance more than other managers.  This is the only study I know of that has found that qualitative feedback in 360 interventions might actually be disengaging and demoralizing to participants if the ratio of positive to negative feedback is low.


No Feedback and Engagement

Gallup organization asked a random sample of 1,003 employees in the U.S how much they agreed with two statements: 1) My supervisor focuses on my strengths/positive characteristics and 2) My supervisor focuses on my weaknesses or negative characteristics. They were also asked whether they were engaged, not engaged or actively disengaged with their work and jobs.

Employees who did not agree with either statement were characterized as “ignored” in their analyses.

The findings suggest that no feedback might actually do more harm than negative or positive feedback.

  • Positive Feedback: In the group that reported their bosses gave them positive feedback in the form of focusing on what they did well (i.e., their strengths), only 1% were actively disengaged and 61% reported being fully engaged.
  • Negative Feedback: In the group that reported that their bosses tended to focus on the negative and provide ongoing critical feedback to them, 22% reported being actively disengaged and 45% reported being engaged.
  • No Feedback: In the group that reported being largely ignored by their bosses (no positive or negative feedback), 40% reported being actively disengaged and only 2% reported being engaged.

Interestingly, the most disengaged group of employees reported to bosses who seemed to ignore them and provide little or not feedback at all.

The findings of these studies are not surprising in suggesting the intuitive power of defining and leveraging the strengths of talent nor in warning us about the obvious dangers of negative feedback such as causing social stress and perceptions of bullying at work.

It would appear that in the case of feedback, less is more is actually not recommended and might have the most negative impact of all followed by a large ratio of negative to positive feedback based on research on groups and teams.

So, go and find that high potential talent today in your organization and tell them something positive or at least something constructive so they can continue to really shine….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate, Talent Management

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