Negative Feedback is Good for You

October 18, 2018


It is curious how many technical expressions slip into the common language with a meaning entirely different from their true meaning – and often opposite.

A couple of examples are “epicentre” and “lowest common denominator”.  People commonly use “epicentre” to mean the very heart of the centre.  The press might report “Tottenham was the epicentre of the London riots in summer 2011”. Users of the word clearly think that there is something especially central about the epicentre.  But the word is borrowed from seismology and refers to earthquakes.  The epicentre is the point on the surface of the Earth above (usually some miles above), the place deep underground, where the rock slip happened.

The lowest common denominator of a set of numbers is the lowest number that all the numbers in the set will divide into exactly.  By definition it is as high as or higher than all the numbers in the set.  If it is borrowed as a metaphor it should mean the best in the set.  But people don’t mean that at all; they mean the lowest in the set, the slowest vessel in the convoy. lowest sounds appropriately disparaging.

Another expression misused in management is “negative feedback”.  It is used to mean giving people performance feedback which criticises. as opposed to praising them.  “You did a great job in that project but (points one to ten…)”

“Negative feedback has a very specific meaning in systems design.  A common example is in electronic amplification. By taking a small amount of the output of the amplifier, reversing the polarity and feeding it back into the input stage, the signal becomes stabilised. If ever you have held a microphone too near a loud-speakers you will know what positive feedback does – the system starts screaming.  Negative feedback damps down the system output and ensures a high quality output.

It occurred to me that performance reviewers do, unconsciously, provide negative feedback in the true meaning of the expression. They tell the appraisee the opposite of the truth to keep them on the rails.  You don’t say “you did a total lousy job” even if they did.  You say, you missed your targets, but the strategy report you wrote was good.  Why? Because we want to keep them motivated.

On the other hand, to the successful appraisee we don’t say “you did a fantastic job, the best we ever saw”.  We don’t want it going to their head.  So we tone it down – “you did well, but here are some areas you could improve”. In other words, we tell a few white lies – we give negative feedback.  We are not taught to do this – it’s something we pick up in the process of managing effectively.  The important thing, however, is not to overdo it.  Otherwise the appraisee will be confused.  There are some famous stories about people who went into a meeting with the boss where he (women don’t make this mistake) was supposed to be firing them, and who came out thinking they had been promoted, he was so lavish with his praise!

For advice on Performance Management systems contact damien.knight@mm-k.com

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