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The Power of Negative Feedback — It Stings and It Sticks

Negative feedback stings. No way around that. But not only does it sting; it sticks.

Recognizing that, we can better manage the negative feedback we receive, and we can be more mindful of the negative feedback we give.

More on that in a moment, but first, I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Seinfeld, where Kramer’s boss tells him, “I’ve been reviewing your work and… quite frankly, it stinks!” Remember how Kramer responds? Watch:

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“You stink!”

A few months ago, I asked one of my peers — a speaker I respect — to review one of my speaking videos. I’m always looking for opportunities to improve and this speaker has been delivering presentations for nearly 20 years, so I thought his feedback would be helpful.

I fully expected — and wanted — him to identify some areas for improvement. He was more than eager to oblige, sending me a rather staccato email with nothing but a laundry list of things to fix. But am I doing anything right?

There was not one positive comment in the entire email.

Instead of being helpful, it nearly knocked my legs out from under me. Ever had that experience?

“You rock!”

Thankfully, I had a bank of positive feedback from clients and audience members that I could draw from to lift my spirits. Reading comments like, “Attending this program at the recent convention was one of the most meaningful…” and “This presentation was a breath of fresh air…” helped me pick myself up and get back to work. After all, their opinions are the ones that matter.

Does the positive feedback negate the negative feedback? Of course not. Believe me, I know I have weaknesses and shortcomings. But it’s the positive feedback that makes me keep going, and it makes me keep striving to be my best.

Negative feedback has “staying power”

Have you noticed that negative feedback seems to “stick” a little stronger than the positive feedback? “You’re awesome!” quickly slips to the back of the mind. “You stink!” always works its way back to the front — doesn’t it?

Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, explains why that is in his latest book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Our brains have a negativity bias, “which evolved to help our ancestors to escape the eager jaws of predators, scrabble for the last bits of food, and protect babies at any cost.”

“While the negativity bias is good for survival in harsh conditions, it’s lousy for quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth, and long-term health,” Rick writes. “It makes us over-learn from bad experiences and under-learn from good ones.”

That’s why you need a bank of positive feedback you can go to for a withdrawal at any time. Maybe that’s a “testimonials” page on your website. Maybe it’s copies of past (positive) performance reviews. Maybe it’s note cards where you’ve captured encouraging quotes and comments you’ve heard from others. Whatever it is, make sure you have one.

This is one way we can “take in the good” — in Rick’s words — and he spoke about that on our recent interview for the “Better Life, Better Business” podcast. In short, we need to spend time focusing on positive experiences — really feeling those experiences — to counter the inherent power of negative ones.

Positive feedback wins

You know how much negative feedback stings when you receive it, and now we know how the brain’s negativity bias amplifies the effect. With that in mind, you can imagine how negative feedback affects our relationships with others — at home and at work.

Dr. John Gottman spent 20 years studying what makes marriages tick before he wrote his classic book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. In it, he states that the number one predictor of whether a couple will stay married or get divorced is whether or not the couple maintains a ratio of at least five positive interactions to every one negative. Dip below that ratio and statistics say the marriage is doomed to fail.

While studying the effectiveness of 60 leadership teams at a large company, Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada found that the ratio of positive comments to negative comments among team members was the key factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (in other words, nearly six positive comments for every negative one — remarkably similarly to Gottman’s findings).

In their Harvard Business Review Blog article, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explain that negative feedback does play a valuable role — in stopping people from doing something inappropriate or in sparking them to start doing something they should be doing, for example — but at the same time, “even the most well-intentioned criticism can rupture relationships and undermine self-confidence and initiative. It can change behavior, certainly, but it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts.”

While negative feedback is often the easiest to dish out, we must be mindful of its power. As the saying goes, “a little goes a long way.”

Offer constructive criticism when necessary, but keep the positive feedback account “topped off” — with sincerity — every chance you get.

As Napoleon Hill said, “Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.”

Author and speaker Tim Sanders gives us some great advice to put this into action on a daily basis:

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