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Does negative feedback really work?

When it comes to leadership, there is one topic that most people either love or hate.  What is it?  That ever-so-dreaded, eight-letter “f” word – feedback (~smile~). In fact, pause right now and reflect on how you feel about feedback, either giving or receiving it …. Where do you place yourself on the love-it-hate-it scale?

The aspect of feedback that  leaders often dread most is having to give “negative” feedback to someone who just isn’t performing at the level needed. How do you get that person to deliver what is required while still helping him or her stay motivated? That’s key to strengthening your brand as a leader. But…. how can it be done?

Here’s a story from my own past about trying to correct poor performance through feedback and what did – and did not – work. 

Pam was a team member who worked for me for many years. A multi-talented individual, she was creative, diligent, fun to work with, and capable of visualizing the big picture. All in all, Pam was a joy to have as an employee.

Unfortunately, though, Pam was challenged in one area that was important for her job: She lacked good attention to detail. She regularly made a number of small mistakes that added up to a big problem for me, given the time and attention those errors and the resulting rework caused.

Not wanting Pam’s lack of detail to derail what was otherwise a stellar performance, I tried many ways to help Pam develop in this area. She showed a strong willingness to do whatever it took to improve, so I coached her quite frequently on this improvement area. This went on for a long time, but those attempts didn’t seem to be working.

An Out-of-The-Box Approach

I finally sat down with Pam and said, “We’ve tried a number of approaches, Pam, but they haven’t worked. Be honest – what would you do if you were in my shoes?”

After a brief pause, she responded, “Well, I’m motivated by money,” she told me, “so why don’t you charge me $5 for every mistake I make? Keep track of the mistakes, and I’ll actually pay you for them.”

Surprised by Pam’s unique suggestion, I asked, “Are you sure? After all, I am supposed to be paying you, not the other way around!” We both chuckled, but Pam assured me she wanted to pursue this approach.

I offered to reduce the penalty to $1 per mistake instead, but Pam was adamant: “The stakes need to be high for my motivation.” She said, “Let’s keep it at $5 per error.”

It was the beginning of a new calendar year, so Pam and I agreed to try this error-tracking system until the end of the first quarter. Per Pam’s request, I set up an Excel sheet and tracked her mistakes for the following three months.

“Money Motivation” Failure

The results? In a word: disastrous. Pam ended up making even more mistakes than usual that quarter, and by the end of the 90-day period, she owed me close to $400!

When I shared the results with Pam, she was crushed and even shed a few tears. But she was also very determined to prove that she could bring down that amount in the coming quarter. So, I agreed to keep tracking mistakes for another 90 days.

Unfortunately, at the end of that second quarter of the year, Pam had made even more mistakes and owed me an even larger amount of money than the previous quarter. Once again, this was a big disappointment for both of us.

By this time, I was more frustrated than ever with Pam’s performance. She was not only making more mistakes, but now, she was also more demoralized than ever, too. For me as a team leader, watching for mistakes had created far more work for me than it was worth – I definitely didn’t like my role as “error-tracker.”

Pam and I sat down to discuss. “Clearly, this isn’t working,” I shared with her. “We can’t keep this up. How about we give this a rest?” We both gladly agreed and said that we would talk about it some more later on.

A Critical Shift

When I look back on it now, surprisingly, Pam and I never really discussed how to move forward after that. We both got very busy and forgot about tracking errors. I just embraced what Pam was doing well and – even more than normal – let her know how much I appreciated her good work and all of the qualities that made her a great team member.

Suddenly, three months had gone by and – guess what? – Pam had only made a few minor mistakes. Fast forward to yet another three months after that, and Pam hadn’t made any mistakes at all! So, as we closed out that calendar year, the back-half represented six whole months of mistake-free work. It was a complete turnaround!

What had happened to cause that shift? I sat back and reflected.

The Futility of Negative Feedback

Why didn’t the mistake-tracking system work to prevent Pam’s errors? Because it forced us both to focus on the negative aspects of Pam’s performance rather than on the positive.

It was a testament to the adage: What you focus on grows. Subconsciously, Pam knew she was being watched and that she had the $5-per-mistake penalty hanging over her head. She knew that she was being judged and that the two of us were focusing on the errors she was making. This moved her into a place of fear, her confidence dropped, and that caused her to stop believing in herself. It became a negative spiral.

As a leader, I also ended up in that same spiral because the more I looked for Pam’s mistakes, the more mistakes I expected, and – sure enough – the more mistakes I found.

Lesson Learned

This experience reinforced an incredibly important lesson for leaders to keep in mind:

Negative feedback never works.

Only forward-focused, constructive feedback works.

When both Pam and I shifted our mindset toward concentrating on what she was doing well, she let go of her self-judgment, and I stopped judging her, too. As a result, she began to make dramatically fewer mistakes.

Certainly, if an employee needs to improve in a specific area, it’s important to address it. But I encourage leaders to start by focusing on what the team member is doing right. Then, when you bring up an area that needs developing, do it without placing blame or finding fault. Be objectively curious. Ask questions. See the development as an opportunity to improve rather than a problem that “has to be fixed – or else.”

Remember: What you focus on grows, so focusing on the negative will only ever bring you more negativity, which is counterproductive for everyone involved. When you place your attention on what’s going well, you’ll have a much better shot at helping an employee improve performance.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 6th, 2019 and is filed under Coaching, Leadership, Personal Branding, Self-Leadership.

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