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Positive and negative feedback

·6 mins

The feedback you need #

I was chatting with someone about feedback the other day, and specifically about when we had received some feedback and improved as a result. The person I was talking to said something that stuck in my head:

The only feedback you can improve from is constructive or negative feedback

I wish I’d had a chance to follow up on this comment, because I think it’s fascinating. What I want to do in this post is to take it way more seriously than it was actually meant. While I disagree with the sentiment (as we’ll see), I don’t want to cast shade on the original speaker. Instead, I want to use this as a way to get my own thoughts about feedback out there.

Why we like negative feedback #

“Negative” feedback (sometimes called “constructive” feedback) is when someone points out something that someone else is doing that is causing a problem or that isn’t good enough.

The most common case I come across this is in code reviews. A function might be too large and the reviewer will say “break it up”. Some code might have a logic error and the reviewer will say “this has an error, fix it”.

It is also quite common in writing. For example, “I don’t understand this sentence” or “Please run this through a spell checker”. Or, at a higher level, “this proposal doesn’t indicate how much the effort will cost, please add it”.

We like negative feedback because it’s clear it’s an opportunity to change and get better by changing. Although no one I know enjoys receiving negative feedback, if they do manage to change and get better, well, that’s almost heroic, and everyone feels good about that. As mentioned in the quote that opens this post, when you are acting on good, negative feedback, it’s really easy to see that you are improving.

On the giving side, it’s often easy to identify opportunities for negative feedback because there are actual, felt problems. Giving someone good, negative feedback is hard. When you do manage to give it, and it is taken well, then you can rightly congratulate yourself on a difficult job well done.

Why we don’t like negative feedback #

Negative feedback takes skill to give and to receive. To give it, you point out the specific problem and its impact, and then equip the recipient with some way of figuring out when they are done. This takes courage, trust, and a sense of safety. None of these are easy. To receive it, you process the emotional sting in whatever way works for you, decide whether you want to act on it, and then solve the problem. All of this can be very difficult.

Sometimes, the giver and receiver cannot agree on just how important this thing is. Sometimes the giver is unable to communicate what “good” looks like to them, or to persuade the recipient that it is indeed good. Sometimes the recipient lacks the tools or skills to act on the feedback. For example, when told “this has an error, fix it”, they might not be able to fix the error. In which case, it’s on them to ask for help, and it’s often on the giver to provide help, which they might not be able to do.

What about positive feedback? #

“Positive” feedback is when someone points out that something someone else did was good.

It can be as general as “great talk!”, or as specific as “I liked the way you started that talk by explaining why your component matters. I sort of knew, but it made it easier for me to pay attention to the rest.”

Positive feedback takes less1 courage to give and less maturity to receive than negative feedback, so it’s emotionally easier than negative feedback.

The question is: can you improve from it?

Absolutely! While the appropriate response to good negative feedback is to change, the appropriate response to good positive feedback is to double down.

Someone has just told you that a thing you did is good. Ideally they’ve also told you why it’s good and maybe even joined the dots between the good thing you did and the positive impact it had. The simplest thing you can do to act on this feedback is to do more of the thing. And the good thing is that it’s a thing you have proof positive that you are capable of doing.

Doing more of that will help you have more of a positive impact, and that’s almost definitionally “improvement”.

More concretely, you might have received positive feedback about something you were doing unconsciously. Being told that this is a good thing will allow you to be more deliberate about it, and to do the thing more consistently, or in more contexts.

Or perhaps you have been told about an impact you were unaware of. Now, you’re better equipped to help out on a wider scope than you were before. And you know you can because you already have.

Or perhaps the praise was about something that you were very worried about. Now, you don’t have to worry about it, and can allocate that emotional energy to something more useful.

Or perhaps you half-arsed something and it still received positive feedback. Now you know you can continue to put minimal effort into it and still get good results. Or you could consider what would happen if you put in more effort, safe in the knowledge that your worst is still good enough.

All of these things are ways to improve, and all of them are easier than improving via negative feedback.

A note for managers #

When a manager tells me that the only feedback you can improve from is constructive or negative feedback, then I get worried.

A manager isn’t only responsible for aiding the growth of the members of their team. A manager is also responsible for the growth of the team itself. In fact, the success of the team comes ahead of the success of the individuals. That’s the job.

One of the most powerful tools a manager has is to provide swift, public praise when someone does something good.2 Then everyone on your team knows that it’s good and that you think it’s good. This creates clarity about your expectations of the team, which in turn equips them to make better decisions. It’s low cost and effective.

When I hear that a manager doesn’t think people can improve from positive feedback, I take that to mean that the manager isn’t thinking seriously about creating clarity in their organization. Without clarity, people are not going to make good decisions independently, and discussions will get bogged down in ambiguity. Is that really what you want?

Conclusion #

Positive feedback is a great way to improve. For both managers and individual contributors, giving positive feedback is one of the easiest ways to help your colleagues get better at what they do.

  1. It still takes some courage and some maturity. ↩︎

  2. Turn The Ship Around!, L. David Marquet, p185. ↩︎