Coaching Feedback : When is it OK to give Negative Feedback?

‘If I see one more article or blog post about how you should never be “critical” or “negative” when giving feedback to an employee or colleague (or, for that matter, your children), I think my head will explode’. This was the feisty start to a recent Harvard Business Review blog by author Heidi Halvorson PhD. ‘But avoiding negative feedback is both wrong-headed and dangerous’ she continued. I was worried that the article was going to descend into an emotional rant but Heidi proceeded to draw upon some intriguing new academic research to back up her claims.

Using two different studies, the researchers Finkelstein and Fishbach concluded that people who have developed a degree of mastery in their field do not live in fear of negative feedback but actively seek it out – ‘Intuitively they realise that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know’. However, please note that this is not the same as saying that these people like receiving negative feedback. This week I received some negative feedback myself regarding an assignment I had completed for my doctoral programme. ‘Your conclusions were invalid’ boomed the feedback comments. I didn’t like it. My inner child was screaming ‘that’s not fair’. It challenged my self-appointed position as expert. However, on reflection, it was correct, timely and very helpful in my own development.

The two studies by Finkelstein and Fishbach involved researching the feedback preferences of students learning languages and individuals looking to improve their environmentally friendly habits. Whilst both these domains are far removed from the world of executive coaching, it is interesting to reflect on the relevance of this research to business coaching skills and best practice.

Coaching Feedback

As coaches and leaders we are often working with senior executives who are emotionally resilient, self-confident and have proven themselves within their field. According to Finkelstein and Fishbach’s research, these are the very people who seek out negative feedback as a means of improving their performance. This conclusion mirrors my own experience of working with such individuals. For example, a few weeks ago I was working with a client who asked me for my opinion on an important business decision. For a moment I hesitated then I calmly responded ‘To be honest, I am not convinced that this course of action is consistent with the values you expressed to me in earlier coaching sessions’. My client replied ‘That’s interesting because I had a sneaky feeling I might be conning myself’.

These reflections also remind me of the story that Sir John Whitmore tells in the foreword to our book ’Challenging Coaching’. John was coming to the end of a coaching session and asked his client ‘Where are you on a scale of 0 to 10 in terms of your commitment to this action?’. The client replied ‘Oh definitely a 9’. John paused for a long while then looked his client in the eye and said ‘That’s rubbish’. There was another long pause before the client said ‘Yes, I know. I was just trying to get you off my back’. When later quizzed as to whether this was really coaching John replied ‘Anything that gets a person from A to B is coaching’.

So we can see that the topic of feedback (the ‘F’ in our FACTS coaching model) is an area where there is still a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t work in helping people grow and reach higher levels of performance. There is new research emerging on the role of feedback, we experience its impact on ourselves and we observe its impact on others through our coaching practice. Sometimes when we present the ‘F’ of FACTS we hear from experienced coaches that they already ‘do’ feedback and they have always ‘done’ feedback so what is new about this? I am sure we all do feedback but I am more interested in precisely how you are doing feedback? When are you doing feedback? What are you experimenting with right now with regards to feedback? Which aspects of feedback do you find most challenging? What more is there for you to learn about this vital technique that lies at the heart of the challenging coaching skill set? Only by keeping such a spirit of critical inquiry can we avoid the risk of wallowing in our own expertise. Long live negative feedback!

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