Positive feedback: the science of criticism that actually works

ByAlyssa R. Elliott

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Years ago, after I received some negative feedback at work, my husband Laurence told me something that stuck with me: when we receive criticism, we go through three stages. The first, he said, with apologies for the language, is, “Fuck you.” The second is “I suck.” And the third is “Let’s make it better.”

I recognised immediately that this is true, and that I was stuck at stage two. It’s my go-to in times of trouble, an almost comfortable place where I am protected from further disapproval because no matter how bad someone is about to tell me I am, I already know it. Depending on your personality, you may be more likely to stay at stage one, confident in your excellence and cursing the idiocy of your critics. The problem, Laurence continued, is being unable to move on to stage three, the only productive stage.

Recently, I asked my husband if he could remember who had come up with the three-stage feedback model. He said it was Bradley Whitford, the Emmy-award winning actor who played the charismatic Josh Lyman in The West Wing and, among other roles, the scary dad in the 2017 horror movie Get Out. “What? I would definitely have remembered that. There is no way that would have slipped my mind,” I insisted, especially because I had a mini-crush on the Lyman character for four of The West Wing’s seven series.

In 20 seconds flat, I had my laptop open and was putting one of my few superpowers, googling, to use. There it was. Whitford has aired this theory in public at least twice. Once during a 2012 talk at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, and again when he was interviewed on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2018.

To Maron, Whitford put it like this: “If I’m honest, anytime any director has ever said anything to me, I go through three silent beats: Fuck you. I suck. OK, what?” He added: “I really believe that that is a universal response and some people get stuck on ‘I suck’. You know people who live there. Some people live on ‘Fuck you’. Most people pretty quick get to the [third stage].” I realised that while Laurence said the third stage was “Let’s make it better”, Whitford’s original was the more ambiguous “Okay, what?”

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Feedback is part of our everyday existence. It is widely viewed as crucial to improving our performance at work, in education and the quality of our relationships. Most white-collar professionals partake in some form of annual appraisal, performance development review or 360-degree feedback, in which peers, subordinates and managers submit praise and criticism. Performance management is a big business; the global market for feedback software alone was worth $1.37bn in 2020.

I decided to try to contact Whitford to find out more. But first, I wanted to know if there was any empirical evidence to back up his idea, and to learn how to leapfrog stages one and two and get to stage three as quickly as possible.

In 2019, I came across a book on a colleague’s desk titled Radical Candor, written by a former Google and Apple executive named Kim Scott. At the time, I was covering my boss’s maternity leave and, as I encountered the niggling issues that beset every team, I became interested, for the first time in my life, in management theory. The book’s title resonated with me. Who wouldn’t want to hear a truly honest assessment of their performance if it would help them improve?

When we feel optimistic about feedback, we imagine the kind of insights a good therapist might offer, gentle but piercing appraisals of our strengths and weaknesses, precious gems of knowledge sharp enough to cut through our self-delusions and insecurities. On a deeper level, many of us crave the thrill of being known, of being truly understood.

Of course, this is not what feedback is actually like.

We overestimate the capacity of our colleagues to calibrate their comments to our individual emotional states. We underestimate how bruising it is to hear that we are not meeting expectations, even when the issues are minor. And we can be surprised by critiques that do not line up with our sense of who we are. If you believe you’re a great listener and your 360-degree feedback comes back with complaints that you monopolise meetings, that may not feel like being known so much as feeling alien to yourself.

And yet we all have blind spots. As the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed in a 1999 study, when we are unskilled in a particular field, we are more likely to overrate our ability in that area. Our incompetence makes it all the harder for us to understand how bad we are, a phenomenon now widely known at the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is one reason why feedback can be so necessary.

An illustration of a smiling pair of lips with the letters ‘F*** YOU’ on the teeth
The actor Bradley Whitford told podcaster Marc Maron: ‘Anytime any director has ever said anything to me, I go through three silent beats: Fuck you. I suck. OK, what?’ © James Joyce

One of Scott’s fundamental beliefs is that there is nothing kind in keeping quiet about a colleague’s weaknesses. She calls this “ruinous empathy”. Scott is a two-word-catchphrase-generating machine. While aiming to achieve “radical candour”, you need to avoid “manipulative insincerity” and “obnoxious aggression”. The key in giving feedback, she writes in her book, is to “care personally” while “challenging directly”.

One of her favourite examples of radical candour in her own life is from 2004, soon after she joined Google to run sales for its AdSense team. She had just given a presentation to chief executive Eric Schmidt and Google’s founders, and was feeling pretty good, when Sheryl Sandberg, then a vice-president at the company and her boss, took her to one side. After congratulating her, Sandberg said: “You said ‘um’ a lot. Were you aware of it?” Scott brushed the comment off. Sandberg said she could recommend a speech coach and Google would pay. Scott again tried to move on, feeling it was a minor issue.

Sandberg grasped the nettle: “You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.” In the book, Scott describes this moment as revelatory. She went to a speech coach and began thinking about how to teach others to adopt a more candid style of management.

When I email Scott to ask if she’ll talk about feedback, she replies promptly. She lives in a quiet, hilly neighbourhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, a 15-minute drive from the Google and Apple campuses, and suggests a video call at 7.30am her time. She logs on from her kitchen, early morning light pouring in through large windows behind her and bouncing off stainless steel surfaces.

A petite 54-year-old with rimless glasses, shoulder-length blonde hair and irrepressible energy, her preferred uniform is a T-shirt, jeans and an orange zip-up cardigan. I notice she wears the same cardigan in multiple TED-style talks. She later tells me she has 12 of them, in different weights, for summer, autumn and winter. She’s had so much flak about her clothes throughout her career that she decided to wear the same thing every day.

“I’m going to apologise because there’s going to be some background noise, I’m making eggs for my son,” she says cheerfully. Of course, it’s so early, I say, should we reschedule? “No, no, no . . . I’ve been up for a while, I have to just pay attention to the water boiling, that’s all.” She is cordial but brisk. I realise I am speaking to a highly productive person who is a scheduling master. I feel the urge not to waste her time.

Radical Candor was published in 2017 and became a New York Times bestseller. I begin by explaining the Whitford hypothesis. Does it ring true to her, a workplace guru who has made the art of giving feedback her speciality? “Yes, absolutely,” she says. But she would add an earlier stage: soliciting feedback. A phrase like “Do you have any feedback for me?” is bad, she says, because most people will simply respond “No.” It’s easier to pretend everything’s fine than to enter the awkward zone of giving criticism. “Nobody wants to give you feedback. Except your children.”

A good question, she says, is one that cannot be answered with a yes or no. Her preference is, “What can I do, or stop doing, to make it easier to work with me?” Even this question has been subject to, well, feedback. “Christa Quarles, when she was CEO of OpenTable, said, ‘I hate that question!’” Scott recalls. Quarles, who became friends with Scott after attending one of her talks, prefers asking, “Tell me what I’m doing wrong,” which Scott says is fine too.

Because she now coaches top executives at companies that have included Ford and IBM, Scott comes from a different angle than most. (Her book is subtitled: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.) Managers who need feedback must somehow persuade employees to be honest with them despite their authority and the nervousness it can create. For the rest of us, feedback usually comes whether we ask for it or not.

I tell her that since childhood I have struggled not to take it personally and can tear up in the face of criticism, a trait I find infuriating and embarrassing. “I am a weeper myself,” she says, to my surprise, and suddenly switches to a more confiding tone. “My grandmother told me this when I was a child. I forget what I was in trouble for, but I was getting some critical feedback, and she sat me down and said, ‘Look Kim, if you can learn to listen when people are criticising you, and decide what bits are going to help you be better, you’ll be a stronger person.’”

It strikes me as very Kim Scott to describe a childhood scolding as “getting some critical feedback”. But it also pleases me to think there is a direct line from her grandmother’s advice to her successful career. And her grandmother was right. Research shows that a decisive factor in the effectiveness of feedback is whether we see it as an opportunity to grow or as a fixed verdict on our ability.

This holds true even when we are merely anticipating feedback. In a 1995 study by academics from the University of California, Riverside, children were split into two groups to solve maths problems. One was informed the aim was to “help you learn new things”. The other was told: “How you do . . . helps us know how smart you are in math and what kind of grade you might get.” The first group solved more problems.

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In 2018, Scott received disruptive feedback when the satirical television show Silicon Valley featured a character who espouses “Rad Can”, a clear reference to her philosophy. The problem was that the character in question was a bully. Scott was on a plane when the episode aired. “I landed in London, and my phone just blew up,” she says. “I was devastated.”

The experience prompted her to write a second edition of the book. In its preface, she notes that some people were using her theories “as a licence to behave like jerks” and suggests readers substitute the word “compassionate” for “radical”. Scott got to stage three in the Whitford model pretty quickly, I suggest. “It really was useful,” she says of the TV episode. “It was painful and it was annoying, but there was something to learn.”

I wonder if there are some personality types that are better at responding in this way, but Scott argues we can all learn to be more resilient. She recommends listening with the intent to understand, not to respond. “Not responding straight away helps me avoid the ‘FU’ part,” she says. She also leans on a technique from psychology in which you observe your emotions with curiosity. “Part of what helps is to identify the feeling in your body. If you feel shame, for me, it’s a tingling feeling in the back of my knees, kind of the same feeling I get if I walk to the edge of a precipice . . . When I recognise I’m having that feeling, then I can take a step back and take a few breaths.”

Shame is the feeling I most associate with negative feedback. When I was 10, my class was told to make small 3D buildings out of paper. I cut carefully around the outlines of a cuboid and a prism, ran a glue stick over tabs at the edges and pressed them together in sequence. Sellotape was also employed. The teacher asked us to bring the models to him. I walked to his desk and handed mine over. He gazed at it in silence. After a long pause, he said: “You’re not very good with your hands, are you?”

For most of human history, this kind of feedback was the norm: direct and, at times, brutal. As recently as a few decades ago, it was also how performance at work was managed. In the early 1970s, the oral historian Studs Terkel interviewed more than 100 Americans about their jobs for his book Working. A steel mill worker named Mike Lefevre described being “chewed out” by his foreman, who told him, “Mike you’re a good worker, but you have a bad attitude.”

A 47-year-old Chicago bus driver recalled the humiliation of being told off by supervisors in public: “Some of them have the habit of wanting to bawl you out there on the street. That’s one of the most upsetting parts of it.” Nancy Rogers, a bank teller, said she was yelled at by her boss and had given some thought to why this might be: “He’s about 50, in a position that he doesn’t really enjoy. He’s been there for a long time and hasn’t really advanced that much.”

A picture of a broken pencil with the words ‘I suck’ on it
‘Ego-involving feedback’ should be avoided, as it prompts the listener to believe they can’t change; that the failure is intrinsic to who they are © James Joyce

Yelling, screaming, bawling out. This is the kind of feedback that has become unacceptable in most workplaces. And not just because it’s hurtful and rude, or because we’ve all become “snowflakes”. It’s unproductive. A large volume of research shows criticism conveyed this way demotivates. Fearful, aggrieved people are less able to focus on the tasks at hand and are more likely to doubt themselves, resent their boss and possibly attempt armchair psychoanalysis, à la Rogers.

The type of criticism Lefevre received can be particularly destructive. Being told you have a bad attitude is what researchers call “ego-involving feedback”, which prompts the listener to believe they can’t change, that the failure is intrinsic to who they are. The teacher who said I wasn’t good with my hands was similarly generalising from a specific task, says Naomi Winstone, a professor of educational psychology at the Surrey Institute of Education. “It’s really terrible as a piece of feedback because it gives the impression that it’s fixed: you will always not be good.”

While research into the giving of feedback has been around since the early 20th century, the question of how we receive it has been less studied. Winstone, a warm, empathetic 39-year-old with a background in cognitive psychology, noticed the relative lack of research in 2013, when, as a director of undergraduate studies, she was tasked with improving students’ experience of assessment and feedback. She felt she could use her training to understand the barriers that keep students from acting on constructive criticism. “We assume that using feedback is just this amazing, in-built skill that we all know how to do effectively. We really don’t,” she says.

Winstone believes the ability to process feedback needs to be developed when we are young, like critical thinking. One of the projects she’s working on is titled “Everybody Hurts”, inspired by an idea first suggested by two medical education specialists in Australia, Margaret Bearman and Elizabeth Molloy. They argued that to help students learn to cope with feedback, teachers should open up about their own failures. Bearman and Molloy named this “intellectual streaking”, but in a confirmation of my theory that anyone working in feedback becomes very responsive to feedback, they renamed it “intellectual candour” after an editor felt the reference to nudity was inappropriate.

Another Australian academic, Phillip Dawson, took intellectual streaking to heart. In 2018 he wrote a blog post, with endearing honesty, that bullet-pointed his typical reaction to negative comments:

  1. Have an immediate affective response. This is usually some sort of hurt, though I’ve also felt anger, elation, stress, pride, shame and confusion.

  2. Hide the comments so they can’t hurt me.

  3. Make a to-do note to give the comments a proper look later on.

  4. [Time passes, often to the point where I now have to look at the comments again]

  5. Experience the same hurt from step 1 all over again.

  6. Use the comments to improve my work.

A soft-spoken 39-year-old professor with curly brown hair, Dawson tells me over video call from Melbourne that he feels shame if he knows he has underperformed at work relative to his ability. But in his free time, he does stand-up comedy and, in that context, his impulse is to go to Whitford’s “stage one”. (He’s too polite to say the F word.) “And it kills me. Because I know that in my professional life, I’m better at it. So I don’t think we have a universal capability with feedback. It’s very contextual.”

Dawson recommends pausing when you receive criticism. Once you feel calm, try rewriting the feedback into a list of actions. “By rewriting, I’m making them tasks I assign myself,” he says. This “defangs” the feedback and allows you to take ownership of the next steps. He also recommends Thanks for the Feedback, a 2015 book by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, two lecturers at Harvard Law School who specialise in conflict resolution. They argue that feedback comes in three types: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. Problems arise when we expect one but get another. Often we simply crave a “Well done” or “Thank you”, and it’s jarring when we receive a tough evaluation instead. “I’ve found that to be really useful,” Dawson says, laughing. “It’s OK to want praise!”

I’m starting to feel I’ve got on top of the feedback question when I interview Avraham Kluger, co-author of one of the seminal pieces of research in the history of feedback studies. “I wonder if we could start by talking about your 1996 paper?” I ask. There is a long pause, so long that I wonder if my internet has frozen. I am at home in London. Kluger, a 63-year-old professor of organisational behaviour at Hebrew University Business School, is in Jerusalem.

It turns out the internet’s fine. He was just thinking. Kluger finally responds: “Yeah, I can tell you that. But I want to ask you another question, about the hidden assumptions, or the principal suppositions, behind your question.” There is another pause. “Why do we care about feedback to begin with? Why do we want to give feedback at all?”

I repeat his last question out loud, hesitantly. Is he really challenging the whole premise of feedback? Essentially, yes. We give it, he argues, because we hope to change the behaviour of another person. But often the person already knows there is a problem. “They don’t change because they don’t have the inner resources,” he says. His tone of voice is suddenly scathing, not scathing towards the people who can’t change, but towards those who assume they can do it for them.

Kluger’s journey to becoming a feedback-sceptic took decades. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1958, the son of Holocaust survivors. After studying psychology at university, he took a job in 1984 as a behavioural consultant to a police force in Israel. Hired to apply psychological principles to the management of police officers, he began by interviewing the regional chief of police’s direct reports. The subordinates complained that they received zero feedback from their boss.

Kluger took notes and presented his findings a few weeks later in a senior leadership meeting. Not long after he began speaking, the chief of police interrupted. “It’s over!” he apparently yelled, slamming his fist on the table. “I have been in the police force for 40 years. I came from this rank” – Kluger, re-enacting the scene for me, points to an invisible badge on his upper arm – “to this rank” – pointing to his shoulder – “and I am telling you, a good policeman does not need feedback. If he does need feedback he’s not a good policeman.” The chief turned to his secretary. “What’s next on the agenda?”

In trying to give feedback, Kluger had received some seriously negative feedback. Later, he would decide he’d made two mistakes. Although he had interviewed all of the subordinates, he had not interviewed the chief of police. And he had made his report in public. Criticising someone in front of others inflicts a particular kind of humiliation.

For all its painfulness, the episode was ultimately useful. Kluger became curious about what the academic literature did not understand about feedback and its effects on motivation. The following year he began a PhD to investigate this at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He devised an experiment in which he gave some engineers a set of test questions. One group was told after each question whether they’d got it right or wrong. The other group was given no feedback at all. Once the engineers had finished the questions, Kluger announced that the experiment was over but if anyone wanted to continue working, they could. To his astonishment, the people who had received no feedback at all were the most motivated to continue.

In 1989, Kluger got an assistant professorship at Rutgers University’s School of Management. Among the first people he met was Angelo DeNisi, a gregarious New Yorker from the Bronx. When Kluger told him he was studying the destructive effects of feedback on performance, DeNisi was intrigued. “My career is based on performance appraisal and finding ways to make it more accurate. You’re telling me the assumptions are incorrect?” he asked. “Yes, I’m afraid I am,” replied Kluger.

It was the start of a long friendship. “He’s Angelo, but he was an angel to me, in a way, to my career”, Kluger says. DeNisi was more experienced and had connections. The two reviewed hundreds of feedback experiments going back to 1905. What they found was explosive. In 38 per cent of cases, feedback not only did not improve performance, it actively made it worse. Even positive feedback could backfire. “This was heresy,” DeNisi recalls.

The way he tells it, his main function in getting the research published was to render Kluger’s sometimes impenetrable thinking lucid. “My role was to translate Avi’s ideas to the rest of the world. Avi has a way of thinking, that . . . ” DeNisi says, trailing off. “He’s brilliant, he truly is. But oftentimes his thinking isn’t linear. It goes round and round in circles. I inserted the linear thinking. But the ideas, the heart of the paper, is Avi.”

In 1996, they published their meta-analysis. It won awards and became one of the most-cited in the field. The two men would work together again, but their paths diverged. Kluger moved back to Israel and eventually became disenchanted with the entire subject. He no longer describes himself as a feedback researcher. He came to believe that as a performance management tool, it is so flawed, so risky and so unpredictable, that it is only worth using in limited circumstances, such as when safety rules must be enforced. If a construction worker keeps walking around a site without a helmet, negative feedback is vital, Kluger acknowledges. The most effective way to give it is with great clarity about potential consequences. The worker should be told that the next time they go without a helmet, he or she will be fired.

An illustration of a pair of hands holding a broken smiley face
In 38 per cent of cases, feedback not only did not improve performance, it actively made it worse, according to Avraham Kluger and Angelo DeNisi’s 1996 study © James Joyce

But in many other types of work, the formula for good feedback includes too many variables: the personality of the recipient, their motivations, whether they believe they are capable of implementing change, the abilities of the manager. Kluger now calls himself a researcher of listening. Instead of managers giving top-down feedback, he argues they should spend more time listening to their direct reports. In the process of talking in depth about their work, the subordinate will often recognise issues and decide to correct them on their own.

Based on this theory, Kluger developed something he calls the “feed-forward interview” as an alternative, or prologue, to a performance review. He offers to give me a demo. A week after our first conversation, we meet again over video call. I feel slightly nauseous, wondering what I’ve signed up for.

It is a curiously intimate process. He asks me to recall, in great detail, a time that I felt full of life at work. Full of energy. Maybe even happy. I describe a reporting trip to meet a source and how it felt when I realised I was being told something important, that the person I was speaking to had a story to tell. “What was it like?” he asks. “Like a lightbulb going on,” I reply. Kluger is working from a script, which he adapts to each person he interviews, and some of his techniques are borrowed from therapy. “I want to make sure I heard you,” he says, then repeats back to me what I’ve said. “Let’s explore what made this possible — what was materially important?” Sometimes he gives me better words than the ones I used initially. “You needed autonomy to make this happen, correct?” he asks. “Yes, exactly,” I say.

At the end of the session, he sums up. “I want to suggest that the conditions that we just enumerated are part of the inner code of Esther flourishing at work.” It feels like he’s awarding me a prize. He asks me to visualise this inner code as a lighthouse beaming from the shore, a safe harbour. He holds up a hand and begins opening and closing his fist, to mimic the lighthouse flashing. “Imagine you’re the captain of the ship of your life.” Kluger brings up his other hand to represent a boat. “To what degree are you navigating towards the light of those conditions? Or are you sailing away?”

Being truly listened to is exhilarating. As Kluger intended, I end up seeing work from a new perspective and giving myself some critical feedback about my priorities. But I’m not sure all managers would want their employees to go on a similar journey, one which is potentially unsettling and could lead them to rethink their choices. And it’s not exactly feedback. Of course that’s the point.

Months after I first started thinking about this subject, I have lunch with a friend who tells me a colleague frequently criticises her. It’s demoralising, especially as the person never praises even excellent work. “How should I respond?” my friend asks. I sit back and think. Despite all the time I’ve spent researching feedback, I’m unsure what to advise.

An illustration of two clenched fists with the letters ‘FEED’ and ‘BACK’ on them
Sometimes feedback is really bias or bullying. If what your boss is delivering is obnoxious aggression, “Locate the exit nearest you,” says Kim Scott © James Joyce

Kim Scott notes there will be times when feedback is wrong. Look for the five or 10 per cent that you can agree with, and fix that problem “theatrically”, she says. Later, once you’re out of the “Fuck you” and “I suck” stages, you should have a respectful conversation, explaining how you disagree. A respectful disagreement can strengthen a bond, she believes. Winstone, the educational psychology professor, suggests going back to the feedback-giver and saying, “This is why I don’t think this is the case. Can we talk about it?”

Sometimes feedback is really bias or bullying. If what your boss is delivering is obnoxious aggression, “Locate the exit nearest you,” Scott advises. “Having a boss that is bullying is damaging to your health. It’s a big deal.”

Much of how we respond to feedback is driven by the nature of our relationship with the person giving it. This is why Kluger believes it’s useless to focus on the recipient of feedback alone. The outcome will always depend on the “dyad” — the sociological term for two people in a particular relationship — and what transpires between them.

Kluger still sometimes sends work-in-progress to his friend and former research partner DeNisi. DeNisi recently told him that a paper was hard to follow and needed more work. Kluger told his wife, who said: “See, that’s why Angelo’s a friend. Because he tells you the truth. You should listen to him.”

“You gave him good feedback!” I tell DeNisi. “Yes, and he listened,” he says, beaming. It reminds me of a piece of research Kluger told me about, which theorises we’re more likely to accept negative feedback if we feel loved by the provider. “I’m not talking about romantic love,” Kluger said. “But if you really feel loved and cared for by the provider, then you’re most likely to accept it and to process it.”

I try every way I can to contact Bradley Whitford. I email his agency and leave a voicemail. One agent emails to tell me I have the wrong person and gives me his publicist’s contact details instead. She doesn’t reply. I write one of those embarrassing public tweets, essentially begging him to talk to me or answer some questions over email. Finally, I receive a response from an assistant: “Thanks so much for thinking of Bradley. He is not available this time around, but I will definitely let you know should anything change.”

I go through the three stages pretty quickly. Whitford has better things to do, and I’m grateful to him anyway. Now when I receive negative feedback, just identifying I’m at stage one or two helps speed me along. And his theory set me on a path that showed me it’s normal to react emotionally to criticism and that it doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it. If you found any of this remotely helpful, you can thank Whitford too. If you didn’t, I welcome your feedback.

Esther Bintliff is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine

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