The Right Balance: Positive VS. Negative Feedback at Work

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Regular feedback engages employees and boosts performance. But what type of feedback matters? This week, it’s the battle of light vs darkness, as I reveal how to use feedback as a tool for business success.

I love everything chocolate cake, unicorns and fun! So, it’s no surprise that I’m a massive advocate for creating happy employees and workplaces. Yet, it’s not just fun and games – Positivity breeds productivity! Happy employees are good for business as they are more productive, innovative and less likely to leave the company.

With all these good vibes flying around, my big questions for you are:

  • Is negative feedback at work ever a good idea? 
  • How do we get the balance between positive VS. negative feedback right?

I believe people are drawn towards the light and shrink from the darkness. Employees grow when we focus on their strengths and develop their skills. So, I say, we need less negativity and more positive feedback at work!

The Upside of Negative Feedback

Before you think I’ve eaten one too many slices of unicorn toast or taken the positive thinking too far, hear me out! I am not suggesting you scrap negative feedback altogether. Occasionally things go wrong – a project metaphorically implodes, deadlines whizz past faster than The Flash, communications collapse…Sometimes we simply have to tell people how it is upfront and dish out some classic constructive criticism.

Failure is part of life. And, it’s not always a bad thing. Our mistakes offer brilliant opportunities for learning and growth. Therefore, learning how to have those difficult conversations with your team is an important part of becoming a strong manager and leader.

Now, for the big ‘But’!

The Downside to Negative Feedback (and what to do about it)

Too much negative feedback tips the scales towards low employee morale, disengagement and lower productivity. Here’s why.

1. Nobody Likes Negative Feedback

65% of employees say their top work motivators are training and career opportunities. So, the good news is most your staff are eager to learn!

You may then assume employees who are most ‘learning orientated’ would also be the most open to receiving negative feedback, as a development tool. However, this is not the case! Research shows even ‘learning oriented,’ employees have a negative response to criticism.

Understanding how our feedback affects employees is an important step in improving communication and designing successful training. Don’t simply tell people what they’re doing wrong, give them the tools to improve!

2. Focusing on Weakness Leads to Lower Engagement

Trying to force staff to be who they’re not is like forcing the Hulk to wear Superman’s costume. It won’t fit and it and might make them angry (you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry!). Instead, identify what your employees do well and give them the opportunities to unleash their inner superhero!

We don’t need to scrap all negative feedback, we simply need to shift the spotlight onto employee strengths. The figures agree, showing 67% of employees whose managers focus on their strengths are engaged at work. This is compared to 13% of those whose managers focus on their weaknesses. A strength-focused culture makes your employees more engaged and your organisation stronger.

darth vader learner3. Status Threats Lead to Lower Performance

If done the wrong way, negative feedback can actually reduce employee performance! Why? Research shows when we feel our status is threatened, our creativity and ability to assess information drops. David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, explains the brain science behind this: “People’s fields of view constrict, they take in a narrow stream of data, and there’s a restriction in creativity.” So, although negative feedback may be necessary, it could also have us banging into lamp posts and losing our creative mojo!

Innovation is the key to commercial sustainability. We need staff who feel empowered and safe to share their ideas, without fear of being ignored or criticised.

4. Negativity Sticks

The human brain has a negative bias which means bad news has more sticking power in our mind than good news. I’m not here to rewrite ‘The Chimp Paradox’ – what I am interested in is what this negative bias means for happy, productive workplaces.

Criticism often has more effect on employees’ emotional well being than compliments, rewards and even recognition. So, the big question is, how much chocolate cake do we need to outweigh some bad news? Research shows the magic ratio for wellbeing is 5 to 1! That’s 5 pieces of positivity needed for every 1 piece of negative information, to tip the scales towards employee happiness. Any excuse for chocolate cake!

If you don’t have any cake to hand here’s a super TED Talk to keep your happiness topped up!

5 Simple Ways Learning Technology Can Boost Positivity at Work

It’s clear we need to get the balance between positive and negative feedback right to ensure employee engagement and happiness at work. That’s where learning technology can help!

Here’s how to use learning technology to ensure your employees get their 5 a day of positivity!

  • Encourage employees to share their learning goals and achievements on the LMS message boards. These social learning features act as a supportive community for staff to celebrate success and learn together.
  • Use gamification to give staff regular positive feedback in the form of virtual badges, points and rewards.
  • Celebrate staff expertise by awarding ‘Expert Status’ to employees on the LMS. Experts can answer others’ questions on their specialist subject. Expert Status recognises staff strengths and encourages knowledge sharing.
  • Use learning technology to match each employee’s development interests with suitable online training, to continuously build on staff strengths.
  • A ‘Question-a-Day’ learning app can encourage employees to think about one achievement or success that’s happened each day. Why not encourage managers to share something positive about team members each week, straight to the employee’s phone!

The power of positive feedback and recognition is clear. If you create a company culture where people feel empowered, appreciated, supported to learn and safe to express themselves, your business will thrive. On the other hand, when negative feedback becomes a regular part of a company culture it can lower employee morale, stifle creativity and reduce productivity.

As leaders we always have a choice about how we communicate with our teams. Do we choose the path of light, darkness or somewhere in between (after all, who doesn’t love a stunning sunrise?). I say, let’s get the balance right!


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