In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, president and chief executive of the Energy Project, and author of Be Excellent At Anything, says that when we hear the phrase from someone, "would you mind if I give you some feedback?" what it actually means to most of us is "would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback," wrapped up in the guise of constructive criticism, whether or not you want it.
There are some fundamental problems with negative criticism, regardless of whether we clothe it politely as "constructive." First, Schwartz contends, criticism "challenges our sense of value. It implies judgment and we all recoil from being judged." Psychologists including Daniel Goleman, contend that threats to our self-esteem and sense of self-worth in the form of criticism can feel like threats to our survival.
Schwartz identifies three mistakes people make when giving critical feedback:
- The belief that our own value or self-esteem is being threatened; so the issue is really about you and not the other person;
- The more the other person feels threatened, the less open they are to value or consider your feedback;
- It's about "being right," and the other person "being wrong," so you build a case and story that makes your perspective "true" and the other person's perspective "faulty."
Part of our resistance to positive reactions to negative feedback is the way our brains work. Neuroscientists have clearly identified that our brains are fundamentally protective, defensive mechanisms. If your ego and sense of self is threatened, your brain unconsciously will act to protect and defend, either actively or passively.
Nowhere does negative or constructive criticism appear more frequently than in performance reviews of employees. The prevailing theory is that such criticism will improve the employee's performance, and in addition the employee will positively welcome it. Nothing is further from the truth.
Managers rate performance appraisals high on their list of tasks they dislike, second only to firing an employee. In fact, neuroscience research has shown that providing negative performance appraisal feedback causes actual physical pain to both the employee and the manager. The traditional performance appraisal as practiced in the majority of organizations is fundamentally flawed, and incongruent with our values-based, vision-driven and collaborative work environments.
Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor, contends performance evaluations do more harm than good. A 1998 study by Development Dimensions Inc., found employers expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction with performance reviews. Consulting firm People IQ, in a 2005 national survey, found that 87% of employees and managers felt performance reviews were neither useful nor effective. In an article published in The Psychological Bulletin, psychologists A. Kluger and A. Denisi report completion of a meta-analysis of 607 studies of performance evaluations and concluded that at least 30% of those reviews ended up in decreased employee performance.
Literature abounds with systems and strategies for giving constructive criticism, and consultants have made lucrative livings implementing such systems in organizations, despite how flawed there are. Perhaps the silliest component of these systems is to suggest to the person giving the constructive feedback to "sandwich it" between positive statements, as if the person receiving the feedback will focus on the positive part of the sandwich, and not the negative. Again, this ignores the brain's programmed preference to respond to negative information.
The reality is that constructive criticism is an oxymoron. All criticism is inherently destructive and negative, however we may attempt to window dress it, or "sandwich it" between positive statements. Anything constructive is associated with growth, which requires a person to be open, not in a defensive state of mind. When put together, these two ideas constitute an oxymoron. To be in an open, receiving state of mind, the feedback must be positive, or at least guide the recipient to self-awareness and self-discovery.
Thanks to Ray Williams / Business Financial Post / National Post / Postmedia Network Inc.
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