Few people like hearing bad news about themselves. Getting a tough performance review or being called out for a mistake challenges our status and triggers feelings of shame, frustration, and helplessness. And while feedback can become a tool for learning and growth, it can easily prove debilitating to anyone on the other end of a harsh report. 

But before you take cover from the criticisms of bosses and colleagues, there's good reason to embrace negative feedback -- not just for the information it reveals, but for the outcomes it creates. 

Boosts Creativity

For some, the sting of a harsh review can produce a temporary boost in creativity. In 2013, researchers at Columbia Business School found a strong link between artistic expression and the social rejection that's often brought on by negative feedback. While it may seem counterintuitive, we do our best creative work when we feel most vulnerable.

Case in point: After getting critiqued for their public speaking skills, a group of young professionals competed to see who could design the most imaginative collages. Participants who struck out on their speeches ended up producing more original and colorful work than those with better oratory scores. Not coincidentally, the aftershocks of negative feedback helped clear the way for sharper inner focus and creative planning. What starts as disappointment soon gives way to determination.

Supports Learning

Feedback can fuel a desire to learn, especially when the message prompts reflection and self-discovery. A 2014 Zenger-Folkman survey of nearly one thousand employees found that people preferred negative feedback by a three-to-one margin. The reason: Getting suggestions for improvement and being alerted to mistakes did more to shape their learning curve than positive feedback and praise.

When asked to name something that could help advance their careers, 72 percent of employees thought their performance would improve with more frequent and authentic appraisals from managers--even if that meant swallowing difficult news along the way. Managers might not like giving feedback, but their employees may want it anyways. 

Preferred by High Performers

That's especially true for experienced and high-performing workers. Given their field knowledge and expertise, seasoned employees aren't necessarily looking for reassurance, but realignment -- useful bits of information that fine-tune their performance and sense of progress. Unlike novice workers, who crave affirmation through glowing feedback, battle-tested individuals don't mind the occasional poke.

That dynamic seems to play out beyond the workplace as well. In 2011, researchers at University of Chicago's Booth School of Business discovered that advanced-level students in a French literature class favored teachers who hammered them with corrective feedback over those who took a gentler approach.

In a related study, researchers learned that "expert" manicurists -- women who claimed to use multiple nail-care products and visit beauty parlors several times a month -- were more likely to seek out negative feedback about their choice of nail color and general beauty habits, and were also more likely to act on negative feedback by paying more for manicures or changing beauty parlors entirely.

Prompts Action

Much as we'd like positive communication from our bosses, negative feedback can bring about the outcomes we need. As our sense of urgency rises, so does the prospect for increased self-awareneess and  behavioral change. 

And it's not only individuals who stand to improve. Negative feedback can bring about positive change across organizations, too. When the Cleveland Clinic learned it ranked poorly in several categories measuring patient experieince, the world-class heathcare center embarked on a systematic overhaul of its operational and caregiving practices. It mandated hourly rounding on patients (uncommon at the time), organized weekly huddles among personnel on the floor, and streamlined communication between caregivers. Three years later, the Clinic placed among the top 8 percent of more than 4,000 hospitals surveyed nationwide. 

While it's never easy to deliver tough news, knowing that your negative feedback can produce a positive effect makes the task more bearable. And when it points others towards a better future, we achieve feedback's essential purpose: To produce positive and lasting change. 

Published on: Feb 15, 2019
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