"Just tell me how I can improve - I don't need hugs or campfire songs to do my job!"
Ever hear a seasoned team member say something like that? Or said it yourself?
"Feedback fuels growth" seems axiomatic, and I've seen the value of both critique and encouragement. But what's the right balance? And what does the research say? In looking for data, I came across some fascinating work by Ayelet Fishbach and her colleagues.
While noting other researchers who alternately extol either positive or negative feedback as prime, this team argued "against a universal answer" and demonstrated that effectiveness is situational. More importantly, whether positive or negative feedback is best seems tied to the experience of the recipient.
Fishbach and her team found that novices benefit more from positive feedback. It helps solidify their commitment. However, experts benefit more from negative feedback. It shows what still needs to be done. Fischbach also found that negative feedback became more helpful as a person gained experience.
Take healthy eating and exercise. Early on in a fitness goal, I need a lot of indicators of how well I'm doing - "I ate lots of fruits and veggies today and no processed food, ran for 24 minutes, and got 12,000 steps!" This strengthens my commitment. In contrast, if I'm 7 months into training for a marathon, missing a time goal on a run or gorging on pizza will probably fuel me to perform even better the next day - "I'm not there yet!"
"Everybody gets a trophy" has become a tongue-in-cheek critique of children's sports. Yet Fishbach's research may indicate its appropriateness - at the right time. Several years ago, our kids played in a basketball league that kept no score. There seems goodness in that - fostering confidence and love of the game without hyper-focus on winning. This can build commitment to the sport or sports in general. Over time, the positive feedback can appropriately shift to negative. I remember another parent observing that "no scoreboard" was fine for 6 year-olds while they learned the game, but that the older kids kept score in their heads - and it mattered.
On the expert side, I once asked a former Delta Force operator how successes were celebrated. Instead, he told me how brutal the debriefs were after a mission. Everyone in the room was at the top of their game, and was ruthlessly committed to being better. Their preferred feedback - negative - was an indicator of their level of expertise.
So, your seasoned team member really might not need any campfire songs. But the new intern might need a whole playlist. And it takes time, conversation, and wisdom on our part to know the right mix.