How Project Managers Need to Balance Positive and Negative Feedback


FeedbackIn improving performance, which one do you think is more effective; positive or negative feedback? Will providing constructive criticism to your team when they are slipping help improve performance more than when you give them positive comments on those things that they are currently doing well?

The answers to these questions have been subject to several studies, all of which only seem to agree on one thing; both positive and negative feedback are important. It is however the proportion of the two that remains a big question.

There is a valid need for project managers to balance positive and negative feedback because neither of the two can work alone effectively. Neither can there be real progress without any form of feedback.

A good leader is not only supposed to lead, but also provide guidance and mentorship. Feedback is a guidance tool and must indeed be tailored properly to encourage both accountability and empowerment in equal measure. That is something that both positive and negative feedback has the power to do.

Project managers often have their work cut out when it comes to managing teams. It is harder to create a perfect team than it is to make yourself a perfect manager. You have more control over yourself than you have over your entire team, and that realization is the key to fostering good leadership.

You can control what you say to your team, when you say it and how you say it. If by giving feedback to your team, you can influence their productivity and performance, then how you decide to do it is a reflection of your leadership skills.

When it comes to the importance of feedback and how it can be properly provided, it is obvious that this is something every manager worth the title should give priority to. What remains an enigma is that perfect mix, or the optimum balance between positive and negative feedback that is going to keep the team moving forward.

Research Findings

We can all agree that negative feedback doesn’t always go down well as compared to positive affirmation. Surprisingly though, when it comes to which between the two is considered more helpful by a majority of the workforce, slightly above half of the people will prefer to hear negative feedback or constructive criticism.

This is according to a survey run by Zenger and Folkman where more than 2,500 people gave replies to the question:Which between positive and negative feedback had helped them most in their careers. From that survey, it is evident that the two types of feedback are perceived to be of almost equal importance.

From a relational point of view, a little negative feedback will appear to go a long way. In fact, a ratio of 5 to 1 was actually floated as the best balance between positive and negative interactions between married couples.

In the research by John Gottman on the likelihood of wedded couples to remain married or get divorced, the ratio of 1 negative comment for every 5 positive ones was predicted to be optimal for a successful marriage. As that ratio approached 1:1, it was almost certain that a marriage would end up in a divorce.

From 700 recruited newlyweds, Gottman was able to conduct a study that, based on the 5:1 ratio, gave predictions as to which of those in the study would end up divorced. Amazingly, 94% of the predictions made actually came to be.

In a controversial research focusing at the workplace by Barbara Frederickson and Marcial Losada, work groups were studied through a similar mathematical model. According to a paper published in the American Psychologist, the study claimed that there was significantly more productivity in the work groups when the ratio of positive to negative feedback was 3:1 and above.

Even though the paper has since been partly withdrawn and become the subject of an expression of concern, ample evidence continue to show that higher positivity ratios are good predictors of flourishing and beneficial outcomes.

The Balance

It is clear that feedback is a vital part of management, and that both positive and negative feedback has a role to play in the management of a team and in helping improve on its performance and productivity. The important thing to remember is that, even though each of the two has its kicks and none of the two can work alone, a balance of less negative feedback to more positive feedback should be natured.

As project managers, it is up to you to find the best balance for your team depending on the abilities of its members. You may have to dig in a little deeper to find even more good things to say to your team regarding their work if you already have a bunch of not so good issues you want to mention to them.

If your team is already meeting its objectives, then that will not be a difficult thing to do; you just have to keep an open mind while reviewing all the work that they have accomplished.

Honesty is Vital

Even as you may want to observe the perfect balance, keep in mind that honest criticism is always the best. If you are going to provide positive feedback, don’t try and sugar coat it in an effort to strike a good balance. It would be better to minimize some of the negative feedback instead, and provide the same at another session, or in a private meeting with an individual team member.

The feedback that you give your team members should empower each of them to use what they have as expertise and what they know from common sense to make the right decisions as they carry on their work.

As you provide positive feedback, you should highlight what each one of them has that is indispensable to you and in doing so; you will internalize their sense of responsibility.

With negative feedback, you should not be aiming at putting the team or an individual down. That is why you will need to focus on the accountability of individual members for their shortcomings as opposed to blanket condemnation to the entire team as a result of failure.

Image: Alan Levine

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