Article: Negative feedback can do more harm than good

Performance Management

Negative feedback can do more harm than good

Negative feedback may not be getting the results you seek to achieve
Negative feedback can do more harm than good

Self-concept is an idea of the self, constructed from the beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others.”

It is simply a descriptive component of one’s self, an individual’s idea of her ‘self’ which is developed in time by her own beliefs about her ‘self’ and her identity. In simple words, ‘self-concept’ is one’s idea of himself. A self-concept could be, “I am intelligent.” The same self-concept in the frame of reference of a workspace could extend to “I am intelligent, and understand the work I am supposed to do.” But what if a discomforting face-off happens with a co-worker, who asserts that “you do not understand the problem statement you are supposed to answer.” Such negative feedback which challenges one’s idea of himself is expected to shake one’s belief in his self-concept. And people react to negative feedback in a very complex manner 1.

Francesco Gino, Paul Green, and Bradley Staats call this phenomenon “disconfirming feedback” in their academic research, “Shopping for Confirmation: How Threatening Feedback Leads People to Reshape Their Social Networks”. The research maps the impact of negative feedback (or “disconfirming feedback” as they call it) on one’s behavior and actions.

Disconfirming feedback is referred to “the feedback that is more negative than an individual’s self-assessment in a particular domain (e.g., leadership skills, creativity, etc.).”

What was the Research?

What the research found was that disconfirming feedback has the power to impact “one’s relationships and performance because it is perceived as a threat to one’s self-concept.” Some people have an intrinsic nature to rate themselves highly, and if peer feedback is negative and does not conform to their idea of ‘self’, it ends up being detrimental to their performance and ends up making people change their social network – go ‘shopping’ for new relations and confirming feedback, as the researchers put it.

The Experiment

The researchers, to verify their hypothesis, conducted lab experiments. In the first experiment, participants were paired and asked to complete a creativity task with their partner. One each was randomly assigned as a writer and evaluator. Writers were asked to do a self-assessment on the metric of creativity. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions – confirming and disconfirming. The evaluator (which was a computer script) gave confirming and disconfirming feedback to each of the 2 sets of participants. In another experiment, participants were again classified in two and were asked to do a brain teaser after receiving confirming and disconfirming feedback respectively. They were offered advice by people who had received information on how to successfully complete the brain teaser; after which the participants solved the brain teaser.

The Findings

The first experiment found that participants found disconfirming behavior threatening to their self-concept. “Participants who received disconfirming feedback reported feeling more threatened by the evaluation they received from their partner than did those who received confirming feedback,” says the research. The first experiment also found that people who received disconfirming feedback from their partner chose to be paired with a new partner for the next task.

The second experiment’s results on perceived threat were consistent with the first experiment’s.Participants who received disconfirming feedback reported feeling more threatened by the evaluation they received from their partner than those who received confirming feedback. The experiment also found that a lower percentage of participants who received disconfirming feedback chose to receive advice for the brain- teaser task as compared to those who received confirming feedback (56.2% against 70.1%); eventually, the performance of the latter was much better in the brain teaser as compared to the former.

What does the research mean for Performance Management?

1.People who receive disconfirming peer feedback seek new relationships The research proved that people find disconfirming peer feedback as a threat to their self-concept; and in a bid to preserve their self-concept, they venture out and shop for confirmations, and developing new social networks. The research proved the following hypothesis true: “People are more likely to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing disconfirming feedback than they are to eliminate a discretionary relationship with a person providing feedback that is not disconfirming”

This poses questions on the peer-feedback provision in performance reviews. Because according to the research, if the receiver’s self-concept is threatened, she may end her relationship with the giver and make new social connections.

2. Disconfirming feedback does not yield performance improvements The research also concluded that disconfirming feedback does not really yield improvements in performance. Which is an irony considering that is the purpose of peer-peer feedback.

People seek peers who give them feedback which provides them with the sustenance they need to maintain a positive view of themselves (i.e. their self-concept).

And this limits their chances to improve, for the feedback they receive reaffirms their positive idea of self. This is reflected in their performance, as a result.

This is the most ironic of implications on peer feedback systems. Because it, counter-intuitively, is leading to detrimental effects on performance.

What do employers need to do?

So what do employers need to do? Should they discontinue self-assessment? No. Should they put a halt to peer feedback? They shouldn’t. Then should they follow a sandwich approach and give negative feedback accompanies by good on either side? Completely inadvisable. What employers should do is continue to give negative feedback but accompany it with validation of what people mean to the organization and their existence’s value. Another lab experiment taught the researchers how confirmation shopping can be eliminated despite giving negative feedback. In that study, they gave participants similar negative feedback but also gave them an “opportunity to self-affirm by asking them to write for 10 minutes about the values that were most important to them.” Resultantly, the shopping-for- confirmation effect completely disappeared.

“Feedback will motivate someone to improve probably only if this broader affirmation genuinely exists,” says Paul Green

and that is how it can be applied to performance review process to good effect.


1 Greenberg, J. (1977). The Protestant work ethic and reactions to negative performance evaluations on a laboratory task. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62(6), 682.

Read full story

Topics: Performance Management, #Culture

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?

Your opinion matters: Tell us how we're doing this quarter!

Selected Score :