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When negative is positive: Freakonomics on feedback

Sure, we all like to hear compliments. But if you’re truly looking to get better at something, criticism is what will get you there.

"You're doing great."

"Keep up the good work."

"What were you thinking when you did that?"

Giving feedback can be an awkward experience. Those who give it out -- employers, parents, teachers -- can fear the reaction they'll get. Those who get it can feel embarrassed or unmotivated.

But is there a better way to understand the whole idea of feedback? Some new research has insights into its value and shows that many people want to hear about what they're doing wrong.

The research comes from Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and Stacey R. Finkelstein, an assistant professor of management at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

“The more a person is committed to a goal, and by that I mean the more someone thinks that they absolutely have to do it, they like doing it, it’s important for them to do it, the more negative compared with positive feedback will be efficient,” says Fishbach.

Their work shows that positive feedback is best used to increase someone's commitment to a goal. But the more a person works toward that goal, they less they value positive feedback. It turns out that they begin to need a sense of where they're falling short.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the coauthor of the books and the blog of the same name. The hidden side of everything is what he does. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen J. Dubner: Hey Kai, thanks for having me back. You know last month, you know, we New Yorkers lost a legend, former congressman and mayor, Ed Koch.

Ryssdal: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dubner: Now, Koch was unique is a few ways, including the fact that he actively solicited feedback from the public.

Ed Koch: Serendipitously I said on one occasion, “I’m Ed Koch, I’m your congressman, how am I doing?” People stopped to tell me, and I knew I was on to something.

Dubner: So Kai, this got me to thinking about feedback generally.

Ryssdal: Okay.

Dubner: It strikes me that a lot of people say they want feedback, but I’m not so sure they really do, especially if there’s a chance that it will be negative feedback.

Ryssdal: Yeah, no, who wants to be told they’re doing something wrong? Forget it.

Dubner: That’s probably right. But the fact is if you really want to get better at something, it’s hard to do that without feedback, whether it’s your job, or a sport, or schoolwork. So I wanted to know the latest academic thinking on feedback.

Ryssdal: All right, well give it up. What’d you find?

Dubner: Well let’s start with the fact that there are obviously at least two different kinds of feedback, right: positive and negative. As it turns out, they each produce their own benefits. Positive feedback is really helpful when you’re trying to increase someone’s commitment. So let’s say, you know, someone new to a job or a project. Here’s Stacey Finkelstein, a Columbia management professor who’s been studying feedback.

Stacey Finkelstein: For these people, positive feedback is most motivating. It’s what signals that there’s value to what they’re doing, they like what they’re doing, or that they might achieve their goal at some point.

Dubner: But here’s the thing Kai, once somebody really buys into that goal, positive feedback has diminishing returns. So if you’re looking for actually improvement you’ve got to start going negative. Okay? Here is Heidi Grant Halvorson, she’s a psychologist also at Columbia.

Ryssdal: This seems fraught.

Heidi Grant Halvorson: Look, doling out negative feedback is not fun. It’s embarrassing. We feel terrible. We feel guilty. So we love hearing, ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to give negative feedback.’ ‘Maybe I can just say positive things!’ ‘If I just keep saying positive things, then somehow this person will work to their fullest potential and everything will turn out fine. ’ And that just turns out to not be the case.”

Ryssdal: Well, wait. How do you know that’s not the case?

Dubner: OK, well I’ll tell you about the research that Stacey Finkelstein and co-author, Ayelet Fishbach, at the University of Chicago did. They ran a series of experiments with people in a variety of realms, some novices and some experts. And granted, these are only experiments, but this is the best they could do for now. And they wanted to see how different people handled feedback at different stages of their expertise. And the results argue quite strongly that novices really need the positive feedback, but that experts just start to tune it out. So here’s Fishbach.

Ayelet Fishbach: The more a person is committed to a goal, the more negative compared with positive feedback will be efficient.

Ryssdal: But Dubner, people are fragile, man! You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I come out of the studio, and someone says, “man that interview stunk!” That hurts my feelings!

Dubner: Well, I guess there are two ways to look at this: you can either look at trying to make people happy or trying to make people better. If you want to make people happy, you know...

Ryssdal: That’s so cold.

Dubner: Well, maybe, look, if you don’t want to get better, that’s your prerogative, right? If you do, then it’s critical feedback that’s going to help get you there. Now, I’m not saying you should eliminate positive feedback or that you should, you know, deliver the negative feedback in a way that makes people weep.

Ryssdal: Well, give me a for instance here, would you?

Dubner: Oh, I’m so glad you ask, Kai. So as you know, I’m a really big fan of Marketplace. I think you do a great job as a host.

Ryssdal: Uh huh, yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah.

Dubner: I would like to look at a couple recent examples of your work. I’ve noticed you are smooth as silk on most domestic matters. But I think you might want to think about practicing your foreign pronunciations a bit more before you get on the air. Here, listen to this one, Kai.

Ryssdal: All right.

Ryssdal: If you want to know where those reactors built like Fumu…Fukushima rather, that Alex mentioned...

Ryssdal: You are so fired! All right, we’re going to turn off your microphone, we’re done.

Dubner: Hang on. There’s another.

Ryssdal: No there’s not.

Ryssdal: The prospect of a quarter of a million new Romanian-Bulgarians. Romanians, rather, and Bulgarians.

Ryssdal: What are “Romanian Bulgarians”?

Dubner: You remember them? And here’s a little something else I think you could maybe improve on, Kai. This is interesting, this is kind of a trademark phrase of yours I’ve found.

Ryssdal: A final thought on the way out that goes like this...This final note on the way out in which Boris Johnson, the mayor of The City of London...This final note as we leave off today, the end of the beginning...

Dubner: You’re sensing a pattern here I gather.

Ryssdal: I hate you.

Ryssdal: This final note on the way out, we did a thing a couple of months ago...

Ryssdal: You know what? This may be your final note pal.

Dubner: Possibly, but before I go let me offer the constructive feedback.

Ryssdal: There’s more?

Dubner: No, here’s the thing, I have nothing against the “final note” or “on the way out,” but together, they’re just redundant. So what about cutting one of them, and just think, Kai. Just think of all the extra time you’ll save over the course of a year, maybe enough time to run an extra couple Freakonomics Radio segments.

Ryssdal: Or five minutes every two weeks that we don’t have to have you on. How about that? Would that be all right?

Dubner: Please no! Please have me back!

Ryssdal: Stephen Duber, Freakonomics.com is his website. We’ll see you.

Dubner: I hope so.

Ryssdal: Maybe, I don’t know.

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i agree with you, negative and positive complement each other. negative can promote the positive and the positive can turn the negative. just like the fail and success. fail is the mother of success. so as the negative and positive. http://www.iwatchesbase.com/

So these are patients who have just had their first heart attack and there’s a lot of question over how do you appropriately give feedback to these patients so that they will complete the right amount of exercise. We’re planning to implement a lot of what we figured out in this study with these patients. www.options-skills.co.uk/train-to-be-a-plumber/

“Look, doling out negative feedback is not fun. It’s embarrassing. We feel terrible. We feel guilty. So we love hearing, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t have to give negative feedback,’ ‘Maybe I can just say positive things!’ ‘If I just keep saying positive things, then somehow this person will work to their fullest potential and everything will turn out fine.’ And that just turns out to not be the case.” Heidi Grant Halvorson http://prodekltd.com/

This segment was very entertaining! Loved it!

As a graphic designer, the best feedback I ever got was when my portfolio was reviewed right out of grad school. Two years of school, and this one lady told me it was better to start over, go back for four years in a fine arts degree program, and that no one would ever hire me until then. Did I follow her advice? Of course not! But it did solidify my resolve to prove her wrong, and I'm a better designer now for it. (And yes, people did hire me!)

Dubner's point was right on the money, although it's a little more complicated than the example using Kai would lead one to believe.

In my job negative feedback is absolutely necessary. I'm a design engineer in a team that includes a hundred or so engineers working on one large product. If I circulate a design proposal for some piece of the system and I don't get any negative feedback, the team is letting me down. Getting a design right is hard. To a first approximation, the chances of my getting everything right the first time are zero. The fun part of my job is learning where misunderstandings are and then working with the engineers whose designs interact with mine, changing our designs to work well together.

On the other hand, being told that I work too slowly could be painful. I notice that I'm getting older and am not as quick thinking as I used to be. If my manager thinks that this is a problem and has no suggestions for how to deal with it, I would feel threatened. In actual fact, this is a fear but not a real problem. Our managers are good at assigning people where their strengths are used.

Dubner's key point could have been made a little more clear: It is well thought out negative feedback that is needed by people who are good at what they do. Poorly done it IS a problem. But then poorly done positive criticism can be just as destructive of a person's ability to do their job.

Awww, Kai, don't give up on This Final Note On Your Way Out! That's your signature exit remark; don't let that guy ruin it, the big dope. I think they're two separate, related concepts. Maybe give 'em a break for a week or two, and people will forget about the whole thing.

Albeit Dubner's "criticisms" were totally in jest, don't be surprised if we never hear Dubner again. Remember a yr ago when the exec producer did an interview segment to which Kai did not give favorable answers according the experts. While she did not belittle him, did you notice she immediately disappeared? Obviously Kai is a very thinned skin egomaniac. Good luck Dubner (suggestion: invite Kai to lunch for big time smoozing).

Another academic study that conflicts with common sense. People need both positive and negative feedback, and both can reinforce a person's commitment. The positive feedback can be very subtle — as simple as a "OK; now we can move forward; what's the next step?" comment from someone when reviewing one phase of project work. This affirms the value of the work and the trust in the foresight of the worker. Constructive negative feedback, focused on the work, rather than the person, is also useful, but to discard positive feedback as a motivational tool at any stage of a process is dumb.

Excellent point. Constructive, non-personal criticism is very helpful. Nobody needs a study to know that. But positive feedback being of no value? Really? Perhaps if it is trite in nature that might be so, but certainly not if it gets to the root of who you are and what you are doing. Such fedback gives everyone a lift - even those who it may initially embarrass.

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