No One’s Motivated by Negative Feedback

Jake Wilder
5 min readFeb 3, 2022

Progress and Appreciation Beats Criticism Any Day

Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels

Suppose you spend your day writing an article about capybaras. You’ve worked hard on it. Capybaras are your favorite animal and you’re passionate about the subject.

Now suppose that you’re just getting started writing. You enjoy it. You want to improve. You’re looking forward to increasing the world’s knowledge of capybaras. But you recognize that you’re early in your writing journey and you understand the importance of feedback in helping you grow.

So, you submit your article to your boss. She wants you to succeed. Capybaras may not be her personal thing, but she loves your passion and appreciates your hard work. Above all, she wants to encourage these strengths while helping you improve.

Now suppose that she starts by pointing out everything that you did wrong. She bleeds red ink all over your draft and hands it back to you.

Are you motivated to improve?

Are you motivated to keep writing?

Somewhere along the way, we started to believe that if we tell people what they did wrong, they’ll be motivated to do better next time. Except when we stop to think for a moment, we know that this doesn’t work. Hearing about our failures isn’t motivating. It’s discouraging and disempowering.

We’re motivated through progress and appreciation. We want to see that we did a good job and that our work means something to someone.

You know this. I know this. Every good leader knows this.

So why don’t we practice it?

Most Feedback Isn’t Helpful

The purpose of feedback is to help people do better going forward. It’s to improve the future, not to dwell on the past. That’s it.

And yet, most feedback doesn’t live up to this simple goal. Research by Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner shows that when people offer feedback, it improves performance 30% of the time. In 40% of situations, performance actually gets worse.

Think about that for a minute. Our feedback is having a net-negative effect. A higher percentage is hurting performance than improving it. Apparently, most…

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.