Brenda’s Blog

Does negative feedback really work?

June 6, 2019

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

The aspect of feedback that leaders often dread most is having togive “negative” feedback to someone who just isn’t performing at thelevel needed. How do you get that person to deliver what is required whilestill helping him or her stay motivated? That’s key to strengthening your brandas 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. Amulti-talented individual, she was creative, diligent, fun to work with, andcapable of visualizing the big picture. All in all, Pam was a joy to have as anemployee.

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

Not wanting Pam’s lack of detail to derail what wasotherwise a stellar performance, I tried many ways to help Pam develop in thisarea. She showed a strong willingness to do whatever it took to improve, so Icoached her quite frequently on this improvement area. This went on for a longtime, 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 anumber of approaches, Pam, but they haven’t worked. Be honest – what would youdo if you were in my shoes?”

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

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

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 Iagreed 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 thefollowing three months.

“Money Motivation” Failure

The results? In a word: disastrous. Pam ended up making evenmore mistakes than usual that quarter, and by the end of the 90-day period, sheowed 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’tworking,” I shared with her. “We can’t keep this up. How about wegive this a rest?” We both gladly agreed and said that we would talk aboutit some more later on.

A Critical Shift

When I look back on it now, surprisingly, Pam and I neverreally discussed how to move forward after that. We both got very busy andforgot 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 andall 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 andreflected.

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 themore I looked for Pam’s mistakes, the more mistakes I expected, and – sureenough – the more mistakes I found.

Lesson Learned

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

Negative feedback never works.

Only forward-focused, constructive feedback works.

When both Pam and I shifted our mindset toward concentratingon what she was doing well, she let go of her self-judgment, and I stoppedjudging 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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