Feedback can’t be positive nor negative

Sep 25, 2022
Posted in CULTURE
Sep 25, 2022 Marcin Nowak

Language shapes our world – including at work. Giving something a value-laden meaning can change how we perceive it and behave toward it. 

When talking about feedback, we often make this serious mistake at the level of language. And this, unfortunately, later has an impact on the frequency and quality of what we say. This mistake is  the attribution of “positive” or “negative.” 

Why do I think this is a mistake? The answer is the purpose of why we give feedback. If we understand this purpose, then the need to trash such a trite formulation will become much clearer.

The purpose of feedback is to make the person to whom we give it better at what they do. This may be in their professional or personal life,  but the goal is always just to do better. We can achieve this goal in two complementary ways We can either reinforce desirable behavior or correct erroneous behavior. Feedback is therefore not “negative” or “positive”, but reinforcing or correcting.

Why is it so important? Unfortunately, common problems with giving feedback are rooted precisely in language.

“Good job” is not feedback

“Positive” feedback is most often confused with praise. And if our goal is to praise someone  – not to make him or her better – then most often the information conveyed is severely shallow. We say “good job,” “great meeting,” and “excellent results.” But “good job” is not feedback. What we don’t communicate is what exactly made it “great”. Was it a flawlessly prepared report, with clear data visualization that let us quickly see the problem and make a good decision? Was it great workshop leadership that engaged participants in discussion? Or was it well-planned, data-driven interface changes that raised the effectiveness of our online sales? Without digging deeper into this information,  there isn’t meaningful reinforcement. 

A person who receives such general, “nice” information is flattered, but nothing else. There is no key element, i.e. an indication of exactly which of her actions and behaviors contribute to a good outcome. We are wasting the opportunity to highlight these actions to help someone replicate them in the future. Remember: our goal is to reinforce what is good, so we need to make it clear.

Not positive, not negative – just like a road sign

“Negative” feedback, on the other hand, sounds like we want to do something bad to someone and make them uncomfortable. This way of thinking – surprise! – makes us soften the information we give, not show the real scale of the problem, give feedback too rarely or not at all(!). Few people want to be the “bad cop.” We avoid sharing our opinions on areas that employees should improve we count on “somehow it will work out” After all, we tell ourselves,  anyone can make a mistake.

And yet our goal is something completely different. We want to correct a wrong action, so that the person we are talking to will improve. We want to show them a path that they may not see for themselves. To give them a tool to solve problems faster or more effectively. Corrective feedback is like a road sign. It shows different things, but it can’t be negative. So calling it  “negative” feedback completely misses its true purpose 

To sum up…

Giving and receiving feedback should be trained like muscles. Let’s remember what the goal is:  to reinforce and correct and make everyone (including ourselves!) better at what they do. Let’s also remember that the effect of reinforcement is stronger than correction – so let’s give “positive” feedback as often as possible. You’ll be surprised what results it can bring!


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