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If You’re Good at What You Do, You Need Negative Feedback

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It’s lonely at the top. A sentiment shared by many self-aware executives. It’s easy to get cut off from what is actually going on in an organization once the title of manager, director, secretary or president is affixed to your name—harder still to get honest, direct, critical feedback.

And it’s that negative, critical feedback that makes the difference, writes Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson on HBR Blog. Avoiding negative feedback, she writes, is “both wrong-headed and dangerous.” Dangerous because it prevents us from improving and wrong-headed because negative feedback can, in fact, be highly motivating.

Especially for those who are good at what they do:

It's important to begin by understanding the function that positive and negative feedback serve. Positive feedback (e.g., Here's what you did really well....) increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence. Negative feedback (e.g., Here's where you went wrong....), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.

Given these two different functions, positive and negative feedback should be more effective (and more motivating) for different people at different times. For instance, when you don't really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it's negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

As Finkelstein and Fishbach show, novices and experts are indeed looking for, and motivated by, different kinds of information. In one of their studies, American students taking either beginner or advanced-level French classes were asked whether they would prefer an instructor who emphasized what they were doing right (focusing on their strengths) or what they were doing wrong (focusing on their mistakes and how to correct them). Beginners overwhelmingly preferred a cheerleading, strength-focused instructor. Advanced students, on the other hand, preferred a more critical instructor who would help them develop their weaker skills.

Have you ever had trouble getting honest, critical feedback? How did you get your colleagues or direct reports to be comfortable being honest with you?

Read more at HBR Blog.

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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