Negative feedback and Employee Engagement

Piers Bishop · February 26, 2013

When is it right to give negative feedback, if you want to preserve employee engagement?  Here’s a humdinger of a problem – you want your people to learn from their mistakes, but you also want them to feel part of the company, to like what you stand for, etc, so they will put in the extra committment that an engaged employee can provide.  What to do?  This is the subject of a good discussion on the Harvard Business Review group on LinkedIn at the moment, but if you don’t have time to read the whole thread, here’s a short-cut that works.

For a start let’s try to get away from the ideas of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback – they give away our expectation of how the employee being fed-back-to will react, which affects the outcome by itself.  If employee engagement is your aim, you don’t want employees thinking that you think negatively about them.

The same goes for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – these are not useful in most cases.  This is not to say there is no right and wrong, just that if you want someone to learn – to take in new information, process it and integrate it with their previous understanding, so that they have a bigger picture of the world and can make decisions that are more likely to work – you need them to have access to their whole intelligence.  And words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ do odd things to the human brain.

Back when the current buzz-phrase was ‘no-blame culture’, a lot of useful work was done on this problem. It turns out that if you replace ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, or whatever, with ‘this worked well’ or ‘this didn’t work’, and then explain what the consequences were and who was affected, you get a more useful outcome.

This is because strong emotions make people stupid, but taking emotion out of the situation preserves intelligence. This puts people in a better position to learn, which is what you want when things have not worked well – and if employee engagement is your aim…

The most direct demonstration of this I have seen was in a school for autistic teenagers. In an environment where difficulties of all kinds were getting in the way of education, it worked extremely well – because it took out of the equation the emotional layer that those children found so hard to understand and deal with. It may be less obviously necessary in an everyday setting, but the same principles apply.

On the whole, people want things to work – it is an innately satisfying experience – so they will appreciate being helped to see why something didn’t work, if it is done in a way that adds to their intelligence instead of humiliating them.

So feedback, in this context, is not positive or negative, it just adds to the available information so people can make decisions that will work well.

Just one more thought – if you are looking to make sure the most important issues are discussed first, so you can get the employee engagement level up as soon as possible, our own WeThrive system will help you do just that.