• 21 October 2018
Is There Ever a Good Way to Deliver Bad News?

Is There Ever a Good Way to Deliver Bad News?

When football fans begin to sing, “You’re sh**, and you know you are,” in response to yet another dismal performance by their own team, it turns out this doesn’t actually make their team play any better! And while the average performance review delivered by senior managers to their hapless employees might involve a little more subtlety than you’ll find at your local football ground, the outcome in this scenario is remarkably similar.

A football crowd is merely venting its frustration by directing abuse at the pampered millionaire footballers who so often make a tempting target. Constructive criticism isn’t really a part of the equation, but when managers in the hospitality field decide it’s time to provide some negative feedback, the objective is usually to trigger an improvement. The problem is that most people don’t respond all that well to hearing ‘disconfirmatory’ information about themselves.

A recent study* showed that in a company which applied a transparent peer-review process, employees who had been the recipients of critical feedback from colleagues showed a clear tendency to avoid working with those same colleagues in the future. In other words, when they were confronted with the truth, and an opportunity to warmly embrace that truth and strive to make the necessary improvements, they chose a different path. They chose instead to focus their attention on working more closely with people who gave positive reviews.

This desire to find common ground with more supportive colleagues is perfectly natural and can be seen in various different circumstances. People seek out news media which will reflect their own point of view. Bosses promote people who have a broadly similar outlook and are usually in agreement. The problem is that we then don’t get to read the other side of the story, we’re not exposed to ideas that challenge our own, and in large organizations we end up with an echo chamber effect where the members become blind to their shortcomings in the absence of critical reflection.

Even more problematic is the fact that when people receive negative feedback, they are much more likely to seek out like-minded colleagues who will provide ‘confirmation’ – the reassurance that they’re not wrong, and that their performance is OK. They effectively avoid the feedback by forming precisely the kind of echo chamber that stamps out open and honest reflection, and ultimately prevents improvement.

The conclusion is that negative feedback generally doesn’t have the desired effect, and can sometimes make the situation much worse. The need to seek confirmation is very powerful, and if it’s not possible for criticized staff to find other supportive colleagues within the organization with whom to work, they are likely to quit the company altogether.

So, what can you do when you need to change employee behavior for the better? According to the study, one common idea that you definitely shouldn’t try is slipping the bad news in between praise for things the employee does well. What usually happens is the listener sees straight through the strategy and focuses only on the negative – and negative feedback acts as a psychological threat which can eventually have quite debilitating effects.

The key, instead, is to provide a working environment which already offers the kind of confirmation the employee needs. That is, the employee must feel genuinely valued for who they are and what they do. Only in that context will the feedback have a chance to be effective.
You’ll see this in action on the football pitch when a team concedes a goal after a defensive lapse. The captain goes over to his defender, puts an arm round his shoulder and reminds him it’s his job to keep track of the opposition’s number 10, and he mustn’t give him any space. “But don’t worry, we can still win this.”

*Green, P., Gino, F. & Staats, B. R. (2017). Shopping for Confirmation: How Disconfirming Feedback Shapes Social Networks. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 18-028. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3040066 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3040066

About Author

Graeme Kay

Graeme Kay

Graeme Kay is a British mathematician and writer who has been based in Bangkok for over fifteen years. He has also worked in Japan, Serbia and Poland and enjoys travelling extensively. He studied Tra
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