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Does Feedback Do More Harm than Good?

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Is “no news, good news” in the boss-employee relationship? Research shows that receiving no feedback is actually far worse from the employee’s perspective than receiving negative feedback! The rationale? Receiving negative feedback may carry a critical message,but it also shows the employee that their work is noticed, and that their boss considered sharing feedback with you, a valuable way to spend his/her time (you are important enough to invest this effort in).

Employees may not like rejection, but can deal with it in various productive ways. What we typically don’t like at all (and are not very good at dealing with), is a void of information or feedback. We are wired with a built-in “negativity bias” which predisposes us to assume the worst in situations where information is missing. For example, “My boss has decided to fire me and is just biding time until s/he gives me a pink slip.” Or, “I am so uninteresting and unremarkable that my boss doesn’t even remember I’m a member of the team…”

Is any feedback good feedback? In “Turn the 360 Around: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and How to Do it Better,” Phil Dixon, David Rock, and Kevin Ochsner assert that most feedback in corporations is a waste of time. The authors note that 30% of feedback processes have a positive impact, 30% have no impact, and 40% make things worse (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996)! Additional findings include:

  • No correlation between a leader’s effectiveness and whether their self-assessment matches others’ feedback (Fleenor and McCauley, 1996).
  • Managers with higher levels of education spend less time preparing to give feedback (Sillup and Klimberg, 2010).
  • One in five managers simply used their own perceptions in informing feedback (Sillup and Klimberg, 2010).
  • Peers may see the feedback recipient as competition and deliberately rate him/her more harshly (Ashford and Tsui, 1991).

Feedback can, but doesn’t always, improve performance. It can also make performance worse. A Watson Wyatt study (2002) found a 10% decrease in performance as a result of engaging in feedback processes. Explanations include:

  • Poorly planned messages can easily be misinterpreted

(my note: even well-planned messages can be misinterpreted . . . language is imprecise and subjective!)

  • Employees can miss the main point of a manager’s intended message
  • Too many messages can be delivered at once, leaving the employee confused or overwhelmed
  • Feedback can trigger strong emotional responses

These emotional responses are a deeply engrained natural response to threat or vulnerability. We feel our well-being is being challenged and it can take a good amount of self-talk to avoid a reaction involving retreat, protection, or aggression.

Should feedback still be a primary managerial focus? Most supervisory and managerial training courses include a module on giving employee feedback. We typically teach what feedback is, why it matters, techniques for relaying positive and negative feedback, and what to do in various specific and common situations (e.g. clarifying expectations or task assignment, exploring what appears to be an attitude problem, regaining lost motivation or focus). An inherent assumption here is that managers can accurately interpret and diagnose employee behavior, identify faulty or problematic employee beliefs, and express the desired behavior so that the employee understands exactly what the manager intends to convey. Communication is generally messier than this.

In upper-level manager and executive development programs, 360-degree feedback assessments are often used, where a panel of raters each spends upwards of an hour evaluating their perception of the manager’s use of particular competencies, based on their individual understandings of the descriptions of the competencies. These ratings are aggregated and the summarized results are presented in a 2-8 hour long feedback session. From here, the individual manager chooses what to do with the feedback: attempt to change their behavior or thoughts, ignore it, or dismiss it as invalid. In the cases where the feedback recipient does decide to make behavior change, this process assumes that s/he knows what to do differently, how to practice the new behavior, and how to gauge one’s efforts and impacts on others. These are big assumptions. Even experts in adult development and competency modeling cannot agree on exactly what it takes to change a particular behavior or build a competency.

Focusing energy exclusively on employee behavior is a flawed approach already. Without addressing – identifying, recognizing – the underlying employee beliefs and thoughts that drive the behavior, managers are aiming at the wrong target. This is like trying to redirect a large ship from above the waterline, without moving its rudder. 


Is giving feedback worth the risks? LARGE amounts of time, money, and emotional energy are spent each year giving feedback in organizations. Are the results worth this expenditure? What can be done to make the feedback that takes place in your organization constructive and not harmful?

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