New Thoughts On How To Deliver Performance-Related Feedback

Working in advertising one is subjected to tons of criticism. In the best cases, it’s criticism about one’s work, not one’s personality or ability to get along with coworkers, but either way, it’s a common occurrence. Yet, how well is this criticism delivered?
Bruna Martinuzzi, writing for OPEN Forum, says the time-honored practice of starting and ending with positives while making the criticism the meat of the sandwich is outdated thinking and largely ineffective.

In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, Clifford Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University, explains why this outdated management practice is not only ineffective, it actually does more harm than good. Our brains are continually evaluating things that happen to us as good or bad; we are wired to notice and respond to negative experiences, much more than positive ones because this keeps us safer by preparing us to react.
According to Nass, “One fascinating side effect of the power of negativity is that you remember less of what is said before receiving criticism because negative remarks demand so much cognitive power that the brain cannot move the prior information into long-term memory.” In other words, when criticism follows praise, we immediately forget the praise, which requires less cognitive effort, and focus more strongly on the criticism, which makes us remember it better.
Rather than bracketing the negative feedback with positive comments, Dr. Nass advises us to start with a few, brief negative remarks and then follow them with a long list of positive ones.

Knowing how to talk to people, especially people who work with you or for you, is such a major factor in one’s career. In my experience, very few people–myself included–are skilled in this area. For some it comes naturally, for the rest it takes conscious effort and practice.
Perhaps you’ll find occasion today to practice the non-sandwich approach discussed above. Remember, it’s negative feedback first followed by lots of praise. Of course, you need to be able to take those crucial first steps and honestly (and compassionately) confront the person in question, whether it’s a co-worker, a boss, a client or an employee. There’s so much dancing around the hard stuff today, in business, in politics, etc. That needs to change.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.