When Delivering Feedback — Should We Dwell on Our Strengths?

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Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

For some odd reason — performance feedback often becomes an exercise in dwelling upon our shortcomings. (Read a recent HBR post on feedback here.) As a psychologist, this concerns me deeply. I’m sure many of us agree that we learn more from shared feedback concerning our strengths. This likely occurs for a number of reasons, including not only how the information is delivered, but how we process the negative bits. We remain acutely aware that information about weaknesses shouldn’t be ignored. Yet when negative information enters the picture, things seem to go off the rails.

On the delivery side, we know we should be addressing both sides of the coin. As recipients, most of us really do want to hear the whole story (even as we brace for it, gritting our teeth.)

Still — we haven’t mastered the art. I fear that on many occasions we simply avoid it.

On a related note, this predisposition sets our managers up for the unsavory task of ripping us down. I’ve never heard a manager say, “I can’t wait to deliver performance appraisals”. I wonder in this moment, if negative information is the reason why. We know it is “loaded” and can drive a perfectly constructive conversation into the proverbial ditch.

Being honest about weaknesses while leaving our core fully intact, is not an easy stretch of the road to maneuver. Yet, we still need to complete the journey. As detailed here, confirmation bias can hide the deal-breaking flaws that affect our work (and organizations). But as human beings we have “tender” hearts when it comes to negative information. Resilience, that nifty quality that allows us to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, is about self-efficacy — not self-doubt. So, I suppose “radical transparency” can have its pitfalls.

I’m wondering is there is a way for the two goals to marry? How do we deliver negative information, yet leave our inner work life core intact? There are options that may help us.

One theory, is hitting a comfortable ratio of positive to negative feedback that is offered. (Hint: We should dwell on the positive much more than the negative and a little negative information goes a long, long way). Another strategy is to use less judgemental language and present alternative behaviors, so that change doesn’t appear unreachable. This also demands that we note where someone is on the learning curve.

This is all a very delicate process.

You may have your own theory as well. There is probably a wealth of information living out there. Strategies that we have learned along the way.

I do know that solving this is imperative. Let’s share both our experiences and ideas.

Thoughts?

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

3 thoughts on “When Delivering Feedback — Should We Dwell on Our Strengths?

  1. A much appreciated post, Marla, and I trust it will be not only thought provoking but behavior modifying also. Like nearly all of us, I “suffered” though a difficult performance feedback early in my career. To be honest, it was my first review and came soon after I had transitioned from an academic environment into a corporate environment. It was also delivered by a less than adept young manager. I learned a lot in that exercise, not all of it related to my own performance, lessons which subsequently molded my approach to delivering reviews in the future. I eventually wrote about my experience and these lessons in The Nine Hour Performance Review (http://wp.me/p2k440-6E). I think two things that were then (and possibly still are) missing are a better understanding of the role of emotional intelligence, especially empathy and resilience, on behalf of both parties, and a clear understanding that an equally important review objective is personal development (into future managers and leaders) and not just widget productivity and quality. Thank you for your ongoing thoughts.

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  2. Thanks so much for your comment. I, too, see both sides of the coin. As a result, I’m not entirely sure of the right answer. What I do know is that protecting our core seems vital (whatever that means to an individual). Adapting to negative information is likely a skill that we all have to learn to digest and to offer. BTW – thank you for your vote of confidence – by reading my meandering posts! It is greatly appreciated.

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  3. Hi Dr. Gottschalk,

    I’ve been following your posts for a little while now and this one really struck a chord, probably from a timing perspective. My experience lately has been that although we see and recognize the positives, it is the negatives that really linger. My gut tells me because we have a tendency to do this to ourselves, we also have a tendency to do it to others. We exaggerate the negative and downplay the positive. Which seems counter-intuitive when I look at something like customer service, where recovering from a negative event is often the best way to win a lifelong client. Which means in this case the client is focusing on the positive and often downplaying the negative.

    On the flip side I often look at personal performance through the chain analogy: “only as strong as the weakest link”. That leads me to seek out the weakest link of my performance and attempt to improve it. Over time the chain becomes stronger as I eliminate or improve each of my weakest areas.

    I also feel the 80/20 rule would apply here, meaning that our strengths are probably at a point where we can only see incremental improvements, so 80% effort gets us only 20% of the results. Our negatives are probably the inverse, with 20% effort garnering 80% of the results. So from a return on investment standpoint, focusing on weaknesses may have the biggest net benefit. Could also be seen this way from the outside. If people perceive that I am strong in a specific area and I make an incremental improvement there, will external parties recognize that improvement or will it go unnoticed. Whereas if external parties perceive my weaknesses, improvement there may have a very noticeable effect on overall perception of performance.

    Appreciate the opportunity to comment and add my thoughts. Keep up the good work!

    Chris

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