Do You Need to Lighten Up or Toughen Up?

Which has helped your career more?

A. Positive Feedback
B. Negative Feedback

If you’re like most of the people we’ve recently surveyed, you answered “B.” Praise is always good to hear, but 57% preferred to hear constructive criticism. There’s no mystery why. Practically three quarters of them thought their performance would improve and their careers advance if their managers gave them corrective feedback.

But is that so? Well, sometimes, it would appear. But sometimes not.  As we continue the survey, we’ve sought additional detail, asking which kind of feedback actually has been most helpful in career advancement. (You can participate in the survey and compare your scores to the findings we’re reporting here.)  Over 2,500 people have replied to this question, and it turns out that the pack is fairly evenly split on this question, with 52.5% saying negative feedback was more helpful, and 47.5% saying positive feedback helped them more.

This is something to consider if you’re managing people who fall into both camps, because they’re almost nothing alike.

Positive or Negative Feedback graphic

We can sum up the philosophy of those who favored negative feedback as “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A whopping 96% of them agreed with the statement “Negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”  And most believed that negative feedback not only improves the performance of those who receive it but increases the influence of those who give it. Fully 72% of this group agreed that leaders can be most influential in their careers by “giving corrective feedback and advice when mistakes are made.”  What’s more, they tended to view positive feedback as “mostly fluff,” not very helpful — and as something the weak would prefer.

All in all, many people in this group seemed to have an internal fear they may be doing something stupid that is ruining their careers — something everyone else is aware of and no one, including the boss, is willing to speak about plainly.

Those who had found positive feedback more useful as they advanced were adamant about the harmful effects of constant criticism, which they felt created a demoralized work environment in which the leaders’ role was to “catch people doing things wrong.”

Yet even those who preferred positive feedback are not suggesting that leaders should entirely abandon giving negative or corrective feedback. When ask what employees need, 75% said, “Mostly positive feedback, with some corrective suggestions.”  Still, 67% said the best managers “deliver much more feedback, praise, and recognition than negative feedback.”

What prompts a person to fall into one camp or the other? Certainly, individual preference, background, temperament, and experience must play a role. But we did see some broad correlations in our data that give us food for thought.

First, we found a pretty direct, and significant, correlation between which kind of feedback a person favored and how old they were: 64% of those under 30 reported finding negative feedback most helpful, but 60% of those 50 or older preferred positive feedback. So it’s probably not surprising that 57% of relatively lower level (and presumably younger) supervisors preferred negative feedback while 53% of (older) top management favored positive feedback.

We also found that males were substantially more likely to prefer negative feedback (57%), but females were only slightly more likely to prefer positive reviews (at 51%).

Moreover, people’s assumptions about which feedback is most helpful was influenced by their functions, and not always in the way we might have expected. Sixty-six percent of people in quality assurance found negative feedback more helpful, something that might be connected with their professional focus on eliminating defects. Those in legal, operations, finance, and accounting showed a similarly strong preference for negative feedback, perhaps reflecting the importance that anticipating and addressing risk plays in their work. But if so, how to explain why those in sales also show a strong preference for negative feedback? Or that fully 60% of safety officers – arguably those most concerned with risk – favored positive feedback? Perhaps less puzzling is the fact that administrative, clerical, and HR professionals also preferred encouragement to criticism.

National culture seems to have an influence here as well. In the U.K. and the U.S., 53% prefer negative feedback. But an equal percentage in Australia and even more (56%) in Canada, prefer positive input. The countries with the strongest preference for negative feedback were Mexico, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, and Brazil, who report a 60%-plus preference for negative feedback.

Clearly, both positive and negative feedback are essential. Perhaps each works best at different times; certainly each works differently with different people. So, if you are one of those who believe the world would be a better place if people only knew what they were doing wrong, our advice to you is this: “Lighten up.” Only 12% of the people in our research reported being surprised when they received negative or corrective feedback. On the whole, apparently, people in our survey knew what they were doing wrong before anyone told them anything.

But conversely, if you are a person who strives to focus only on the positive and assumes that people don’t need corrective feedback, our advice to you is “Toughen up.” People need to understand boundaries, and they need confirmation from their leaders when they’re doing something wrong. The best leaders provide both varieties of feedback well and have learned to be insightful and selective about when to deliver which sort to which sorts of people.

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