The belief that those in leadership positions should point out weaknesses to employees to improve their performance is a fallacy that has long pervaded business culture. But recently, the drawbacks of providing employees with critical feedback has been proven to outweigh the benefits.
Believing in the power of feedback requires making the following assumptions: one person can see another individual’s faults more clearly than an individual can see it themselves, workers will be successful when those more experienced fill them with their knowledge and there is always one right way to perform.
Feedback is ultimately more about the individual providing the feedback than the one receiving it. This model is egocentric, because it implies that one person has the correct answer while others lack that information.
Neurological science has proven that being praised for our strengths accelerates learning, and being reminded of our weaknesses remediates the potential to learn. So, a person in power providing an employee with examples of their weaknesses can hinder their learning and performance more than it can improve it.
According to Richard Boyatzis, a professor of business and psychology, receiving a negative critique can make it more difficult to access existing neural circuits, thus making it difficult to come up with solutions to improve behavior. In fact, focusing on shortcomings impairs learning. Neurogenesis, or the growth of neurons, is stimulated more by a sense of well-being than by criticism.
What can employers do as an alternative?
Instead of calling employees out the things they do incorrectly, bring awareness to positive results. When someone has a good outcome, call attention to it. Drawing attention to excellence will increase the likelihood of further success and better your team.
Publicly highlight the good instead of privately chastising for the bad. For instance, if someone botches a report, though you may want to stop to call attention to the incorrect way, highlighting a correct example can have a more significant impact.
Make sure that the praise that you give is always specific. When you notice something awesome, say exactly why it’s awesome. Tell your employee exactly what caught your eye instead of delivering blanket praise. Say how the action made you feel and why.
When someone asks for feedback after making mistakes, it may be tempting to start listing out the things that they are doing wrong to help them improve. Instead, ask them what things they feel that they feel they are currently doing well. Focusing on the positive primes the brain with oxytocin that makes the brain more open to finding new solutions. Following this, ask how they have solved problems in the past, which should be easier for them to arrive at following the boost of oxytocin you primed them with. Asking these questions can lead them to deduce what actions they should take to better their performance in the future.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.