Study: This is why negative feedback so often backfires — and how to do better

When you give your coworkers some tough but necessary feedback on their performance, you want them to learn and improve from it.

But new research from Harvard Business School found that instead of confronting the hard truths contained within negative feedback we’re much more likely to cut off our relationships with the negative feedback giver.

In an analysis of 300 employees’ peer-review processes, researchers Paul Green and his colleagues found that employees would avoid the coworkers who gave the negative feedback and would seek more positive reviews from new work relationships.

Running from the pain

In one experiment, the researchers told participants that they were getting negative feedback from a work partner about a story they had written. The participants who got the bad feedback were more likely to choose a new work partner for the next task than the participants who got self-confirming feedback.

“There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are,” Green writes. “But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them.”

Seeking out affirmation

The researchers found that when the feedback giver and recipient still had to work together, the recipient would seek out new people in different departments at work to offset the bad feedback they had heard. The researchers called this “shopping for confirmation,” or the search for a positive view of one’s self when our world get threatened by the idea that we’re not as valuable as we want to think we are.

How to get better at hearing (or giving) criticism

But this psychological defense mechanism can be unlearned. Green and his colleagues found that when employees were reminded of their value before they had to hear negative feedback, they stopped shopping for confirmation. Likewise, when recipients of bad feedback were given 10 minutes to write about the values that mattered to them, they did not seek out self-confirming feedback.

Green’s research shows us how one bad critique can rattle us. When someone at work tells us something about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, we’re not inclined to listen. For us to listen to hard truths, we have to feel safe enough to hear them.

The lesson for managers and employees is to remind employees of their value within the workplace before we give them the bad news.

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