Is receiving feedback rewarding?  Perhaps, if it’s positive.  But, feedback providers tend to borrow from behaviorist psychology (Skinner, etc) in assuming that getting the feedback will result in learning, much in the same way that rewarding a behavior will.

In most cases, performance or 360 feedback is not nearly immediate enough to be linked to specific behaviors.  Also, the feedback from these processes tends to focus on what a person should be doing (which can be vague) as opposed to rewarding good behaviors (which leads to learning).

So, how can the feedback process lead to more learning?  Here are two tips:

  1. Focus more on rewarding good behaviors than pointing out poor ones.  Not only will this help the person receiving feedback, but if others see which behaviors are rewarded they will want to emulate them.
  2. If you point out a behavior that should be changed, point out what the better replacement behavior is and then reward the new behavior.

Some people prefer the “brutally honest” approach to feedback.  I’m sure you’ve heard something to the effect, “We’re all big boys and girls here, tell it like it is.”  There are a couple of problems with this approach.  One is that there is research on 360 feedback (Smither, J. & Walker, A.G., 2004) that those who received a relatively small number of negative comments (in relation to positive ones) improve more than those who receive a relatively large number of negative comments.  You could argue that strong performers got that way because they are better at receiving negative feedback and improving, hence fewer negative feedback comments.  However, another interpretation is that people who get LOTS of negative feedback lose interest in improving.  Perhaps they decide that the system is rigged against them or that there is no way they can get better at everything or they just don’t believe that they are that poor at their jobs.  Either way, being “brutally honest” in spades comes with costs.

Another reason to ease back on the negative feedback is the pain it causes.  I’m not exaggerating.  Neuroscience studies (Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. & Williams, K., 2003) show that the brain reacts to negative feedback the same way it does to physical injuries.  I think it’s fair to say that no one comes to work for that kind of experience.

Remember, insight alone won’t change behavior (otherwise, therapists would be out of business).  If your feedback is solely focused on pointing out what’s wrong with a person and you don’t reward them for doing what is right, the people receiving the feedback will always treat it like a trip to the dentist rather than a learning experience.

For more information on employee engagement, skills assessment, 360 feedback, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or