Why your boss thinks criticism is more effective than praise… and is wrong!

PraiseI just discovered a great article by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback on why criticism seems more effective than praise in the workplace… but isn’t.

From the article:

This is one of those areas where the lessons of experience aren’t obvious — and can even be misleading.

Your observation that criticism is more often followed by improvement is probably accurate. But what’s going on isn’t what you think. In fact, it’s something called “regression to the mean” and if you don’t understand it, you and your people will be its victims.

Basically, the article argues that we all have an average performance level over time but actual performance varies from day to day and task to task. But we tend to forget this:

If you track someone’s performance task by task, you’ll discover that a great performance, one that’s far above the person’s average or mean, is usually followed by a less-inspiring performance that’s closer to the mean.

It works the same the other way. A terrible performance is usually followed by something better. No one’s making or causing this to happen. It’s part of the variability built into human activity, especially when doing something even moderately complex.

Consequently, when someone performs worse than their own average and you criticize them for it, they will tend to perform better afterwards, simply because they return to their own average. They would have done so, even if you had said nothing.

For the same reason, when someone performs better than usual and you praise them for it, their next performance will tend to be worse.

And this means that:

Even if you don’t notice these apparent connections consciously, you’re aware of them intuitively. And the most likely consequence will be that you criticize far more than you praise.

This is a brilliant insight and the lesson is that we must shift our focus from increasing performance on individual tasks to raising people’s average performance. And this is done more effectively by focusing on what people do well.

A lot of evidence suggests that positive reinforcement — identifying and building on strengths — will produce better results than a relentless focus on faults. This is important.

To improve, people need positive feedback. It’s just as important to recognize and reinforce their strengths as it is to point out where they’re falling short. And you need to understand why praise can seem dysfunctional, so you don’t withhold it.

Read the whole article – it’s brilliant and it reinforces the point we’ve made again and again that praising people for their good work makes them happier AND more effective.

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20 thoughts on “Why your boss thinks criticism is more effective than praise… and is wrong!”

  1. I completely agree with the idea that positive reinforcement is key and focusing on faults (in yourself or anyone else) will not help you improve your results in work, love, or life….In accordance with Rational OptimismTM, your thoughts really ought to be constructive and to some extent rationally positive in order to perform your best on any given task and consistently. Focusing on strengths and benefits will likely increase the quality of your average performance over time if not immediately. Fabulous post & excellent reminder!

  2. Very true – I’ve hardly seen anybody respond well to criticism, unless they are a very rebellious type who seem to draw energy from it. What it usually does it chip away at the self esteem, causing people to become very defensive and decreasing their productivity. From my experience of teaching children, this is true from a very young age – those who are praised and told that they are intelligent perform better than those made to believe that they are useless. Sadly, a lot of adults have taken criticism seriously since childhood (after all, when we know so little about the world, how else can we learn whether we are intelligent or dumb?) and carry a lot of outdated, unfounded beliefs with them. Remember, guys, just because your teacher or boss told you that you weren’t good enough doesn’t mean they were right – they probably had plenty of their own insecurities, which is why they put other people down to make themselves feel good!

  3. @cece: Will have to look into rational optimism – sounds great!

    @gwynnie: I agree. However, it also seems like you can praise children in a “wrong” way. It seems the key is to praise kids for effort, rather than for results. But the good thing is that kids growing up today get praised waaaay more, which is great!

  4. Thank you for sharing this thoughts. I do agree that positive reinforcement by way of identifying and building on their strengths will definitely produce better results than focusing on their faults.
    This is not just true with adults but with kids as well. They need to be praised on their good work so that they would be motivated to do much better the next time.

  5. Negative comments MAY seem like a constructive form of….well, changing anything, but it has the opposite affect. It weighs people down, make them feel down, negative about their qualities and strengths, and could freeze any productivity. I mean, why bother trying is you’re so bad at something?

    However, positive comments, thinking, and reinforcement will increase a person’s emotional well-being, and encourage them to accomplish even more in life, challenging themselves and their brains. THis might be very, very important when it comes to raising our children- don’t stop their progress before it even begins.

  6. I work really hard to stay on the positive track, and to give constructive feedback (when you do a, b happens, is that the impact you want? what could you do differently?).

    But last year I had to just flat out give the tough line to someone who had gone way too far down a detour from his work. He was not happy about it, and his mood flowed uncharacteristically into his work – it could have been destructive.

    About a week later an opportunity came up to present to the top executives on his project. I gave him the opportunity (slightly holding my breath to be honest) and he did a great job.

    Extending that trust was the best thing I could have done – it showed that I recognised he’s a great team member who took a wrong track – not a poor performer. The positive comments are all very well but in this case it was the positive action that turned him around.

  7. Receiving criticism more than praise leads to low working moral. People not only feel under appreciated but devalued in the workplace. At one of my employers we had a boss who had an axe to grind with everyone in our department. Our boss was more focused out outsourcing parts of our jobs than showing any interest in what we do in our department. The only time she would talk to any of us is when she would get a call about something not being done, or trying to give us a task that we would not have any training in or access to. Whenever we had to investigate what happened, about 80% of the time it belonged to another department. Because of how low we were perceived in our department, we would pretty much emphasize in the e-mail that it belong to X Department, or by looking at the address that it was mailed to, we most likely never received it, with a (sort of) I told you so kind of tone. The reason why I say it like that it because where I work, people don’t take the extra time to look at paper trails, etc. before going to the person/department.

    If employers want positive output from their employees, give them the praise they deserve, don’t criticize what you don’t know, and it there are changes going on in the department, please keep your employees in the loop. It is not only unfair to eliminate someone’s job without letting them prepare for it, but it is also unethical

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