Why Great Bosses Rarely Give Negative Feedback, Backed by Science

If you’ve ever been served one, you won’t be surprised to learn that science shows the so-called feedback sandwich — leading with a positive, sharing the negative, then closing with a positive — is a terrible way to deliver constructive criticism. 

According to a study published in Management Review Quarterly, the feedback sandwich almost always fails to correct negative or subpar behaviors. 

But what you may not know is that even when delivered separately, people do tend to clearly remember the positive feedback they receive — but within a short period of time, they don’t remember the negative feedback at all. 

The problem lies in how we form beliefs about ourselves. We all tend to overestimate our abilities. We want to believe we’re smart. We want to believe we’re talented. We want to believe we’re good at what we do.

So we subconsciously find ways to feel good about ourselves.

Which means, as a study conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn reveals, we’re really good at quickly rationalizing away — and even forgetting — negative feedback.

The tension that results between the desired self-view and actual behavior is often resolved by manipulating beliefs or perceptions… thereby restoring the self-view. 

While beliefs after positive feedback remain adjusted upwards, beliefs after negative feedback substantially “recovered” and reflect the feedback to a much smaller extent; thus, the effect of negative feedback on beliefs is mitigated over time.

No such pattern is observed for positive feedback.

Our findings suggest that in such environments, people try to (and manage to) suppress feedback that threatens their desired self-view.

The result is what psychologists call motivated belief. Say something good about me and I’ll remember, because positive feedback reinforces my self-image.

Say something negative about me, though, and without even trying I’ll suppress and eventually forget it.

Because the last thing I want to believe is that I’m sub-par.

So How Should You Deliver Negative Feedback?

That leaves you with a bit of a pickle. As a leader it’s your job — it’s your responsibility — to develop your employees. 

After all: The better your employees, the better your business.

Which means that sometimes constructive feedback, or even a little tough love, is necessary.

So how can you overcome motivated belief so that long-term change (and development) occurs?

1. Always follow up.

The research shows that self-belief “adjusts appropriately” immediately after feedback. If you tell me I made mistakes on nine out of ten presentation slides I created, at first I’ll accept I’ve been a little sloppy. 

But within a month, one of two things will happen:

  • I’ll decide you were wrong and my performance was actually fine (the better-than-average effect), or 
  • I’ll forget we ever had the conversation

The easy way to counteract the impact of motivated belief?  Follow up within a couple weeks. Evaluate my performance since you delivered the feedback. Provide facts, figures, or examples that justify your assessment.

If I improved, great. If I didn’t, the conversation will appropriately re-re-adjust my self-belief.

In short, don’t assume that negative feedback, once delivered, will forever be remembered.

2. Also praise the positive, however occasionally it occurs.

The other option is to leverage the power of positive memory. Research shows that people given positive feedback tend to remember not just the feedback (“Great job!”) but also the facts accompanying the feedback (“Your sales increased by 17 percent month-over-month!”)

Again, say nine out of my ten presentation decks were littered with inaccuracies and typos.

Instead of showing me the nine decks with problems, swallow your frustration and focus on the good one. Tell me it’s great. Tell me you appreciate the fact there were no errors or omissions. Explain why that makes a difference to the audience, and to you.

Do that, and I’ll remember how good it feels like to get it right — and I’ll want to experience that feeling again.

Think of it as the “catch me doing something right” phenomenon. If you want me to be more patient when dealing with customer complaints, praise me when I do display that behavior. If you want me to spend extra time training struggling employees, praise me when I do display that behavior.

Then I won’t just want to live up to your perception of me — and just as importantly, to my own perception of and beliefs about myself.

I’m also much more likely to remember what you said.

Which is the whole point of giving feedback.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.