Negative Feedback Is Disengaging and Demotivating to Talent

“Nothing is more effective than sincere, accurate praise, and nothing is more lame than a cookie-cutter compliment”Bill Walsh


Ken Nowack

What would you say to someone if you knew that your honest feedback to a person could influence and motivate this individual to make or not to make a $3 million gift or donation to a charity or non-profit organization?

Would you be brutally honest and share your opinion that the person has a long pattern of being a “competent jerk” and really needs to change their interpersonal approach with others or would you be politically correct and just assume your feedback really won’t make a difference in changing their leadership style? It is also possible that if the person feels overly criticized that they might be unwilling to “give back” to the organization in the form of a monetary gift.

Ahh…the dilemma of feedback!

Just how honest and candid should one be in giving feedback to others?

One question that comes up from raters in 360-degree feedback processes is whether they can be “totally honest” in completing the online questionnaires1. I’m sure in the back of their minds they are also questioning just how much this feedback will really make a difference.

As a vendor of 360-degree feedback assessments it’s not atypical on any multi-rater project to get at least one participant or rater contacting us and asking just how “anonymous” and confidential their feedback will be. We try to explain that leaders don’t typically wake up each morning and spontaneously try out new behaviors and change for the sake of change.

We try to assure raters their comments and ratings will be bundled with others who have been invited by their leader for feedback and that without taking a risk to share their observations, suggestions and feedback what they will see is basically more of the same. We can actually confirm by watching our assessment administration system that some of the less paranoid hang up and complete the online questionnaires and the others choose not to.

Why do Some Raters Decide Not to Provide Feedback?

• Some raters don’t believe that leaders will change anyway (it doesn’t matter if the cause is motivation or ability–the outcome is the same)

• Some raters are justified in not participating knowing that their boss will actually try hard to identify them and if successful will punish them for their candor

• Some raters lack confidence about anonymity and confidentiality and don’t trust the 360-feedback process

• Some raters don’t ever get any follow up after they share feedback from so they see it as a waste of their time

Not long ago, the past chancellor of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), said he and his family would no longer be considering donating a $3 million gift to the school when he planned on retiring after a regent’s negative comments in his job performance evaluation (this probably is another story my old UCLA dissertation chair, Samuel Culbert who is critical particularly of performance reviews would love!).

In a written evaluation by one of the regents who had a role to provide appraisal comments to the Chancellor, this regent wrote that the Chancellor’s claims of being “totally honest and known for his integrity” were false. The regent went on to write about the Chancellor that “he is known primarily as a self-absorbed, self-indulgent bully and tyrant, given to rashly going off at little or no provocation.”

Feedback, whether oral or written, can be either motivating or disengaging. In almost all 360-degree feedback assessments, there is a section for “open ended” questions that are typically reported back to participants verbatim. One dilemma in coaching when using 360-degree feedback is how to handle a situation in which the majority of written comments by raters are particularly skewed towards being critical, negative and judgmental. Ethically, what should you do knowing that the reaction on the part of your client might be received negatively?

Smither and Walker (2004) analyzed the impact of upward feedback ratings as well as narrative comments over a one-year period for 176 managers2. They found that those who received a small number of unfavorable behaviorally based comments improved more than other managers but those who received a large number (relative to positive comments) significantly declined in performance more than other managers. These individuals were more disengaged and emotionally upset as a result of the 360-degree feedback process.

Newer neuroscience research sheds some interesting light on “why” perceived negative feedback is potentially emotionally harmful. Recent studies confirm that emotional hurt and rejection, whether part of social interactions (or poorly designed and delivered feedback interventions) can actually trigger the same neurophysiologic pathways associated with physical pain and suffering3.

As George Carlin once said, “Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second best policy”…..Be well….

1 Nowack, K. (2010). Leveraging Multirater Feedback to Facilitate Successful Behavioral Change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 61, 280-297 [

2 ]

3 Smither, J. & Walker, A.G. (2004). Are the characteristics of narrative comments related to improvement in multi-rater feedback ratings over time? Personnel Psychology, 89, 575-581 [

4 ]

5 Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. & Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292 [
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