Give Positive Feedback Before Negative? Maybe Not


Many people are familiar with the build-break-build method of starting with positive feedback, then the negative, and then more positive. But is that the most effective way to convey your compliments and criticism? Recent research has been done to determine the most effective, and polite method.

It’s an old idea, one you’re probably familiar with: When you’re giving an employee feedback, lead with the positive, then give the negative. Or start with the positive, follow with the negative, and close with more positive, a process known by the awful term, “criticism sandwich.”

I don’t know if there’s ever been any research to support this start-with-the-positive approach. But even if there isn’t, it seems kind and caring to begin an evaluation or performance review with what the person has done well.

There may be a problem, though, with leading with the positive. According to research conducted by Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, people don’t deeply consider praise. As he explains in his book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop , they’ll remember that they were praised and will feel good about receiving it, but they won’t remember the specifics for long. Praise, in other words, doesn’t require significant cognitive resources.

But criticism: ah, that they’ll remember. And once they’ve received negative feedback, they’ll remember less of the preceding positive feedback because of something called retroactive interference . According to Nass, “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.”

Furthermore, after receiving negative feedback, memory is actually improved, which is an effect known as proactive enhancement . Therefore, if you give positive feedback first, people will remember only the negative. If, instead, you give negative feedback first, it will make people alert to the subsequent positive feedback.

This is an intriguing finding. And yet . . . and yet . . . . I’m not sure I can follow it. For me, it just feels better to lead with the positive rather than to risk that the person’s cognitive apparatus will come into play exactly as Nass suggests. Plus it seems somehow mean and out-to-getcha to begin an evaluation by focusing on the negative.

It also seems to me that in the real world, as opposed to the laboratory setting, terms like negative feedback or criticism (or criticism sandwich!) are part of the problem. If feedback is handled as “here’s what you’ve done well” and “here’s what can benefit from improvement,” it avoids the taint of negativity. Feedback that’s sincerely given in a timely manner by someone qualified and designated to give it doesn’t have to feel negative at all.

If you have feedback about this post, let me know. But, please, lead with the positive. (Thanks!)  

User Comments

Yury Makedonov's picture

Hi Naomi,

You are such a nice person!
( I just followed you request "If you have feedback about this post, let me know. But, please, lead with the positive.")

At the same time I believe that it's a wrong question whether to start a conversation with a positive or with a negative.
Feedback session should be started with the most important point.

Dinner conversation may start with anything, but when you actually start providing a feedback (after you finished discussing weather, traffic, sport etc.) it also should start with the most important point.

July 22, 2012 - 7:24pm
Naomi Karten's picture

Yury, thank you, and you are a nice person too! :-)

I like your point about starting with what's most important. Certainly, if the purpose of the feedback is to address a problem, then it could be foolish (or a stall tactic, maybe) to start with anything else. When the purpose is a general evaluation or performance review, I can imagine the manager creating a list of issues from the most important to the least, and if the feedback regarding the most important is negative (or speaks to a problem with the employee's performance -- which is better than calling it "negative"), then so be it.

Maybe it's just me, but even though I agree with you, I still feel more comfortable saying something positive before something less-than-positive, at least in the case of the performance review.


July 22, 2012 - 8:31pm

About the author

Naomi Karten's picture Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a highly experienced speaker and seminar leader who draws from her psychology and IT backgrounds to help organizations improve customer satisfaction, manage change, and strengthen teamwork. She has delivered seminars and keynotes to more than 100,000 people internationally. Naomi's newest books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Her other books and ebooks include Managing Expectations, Communication Gaps and How to Close Them, and How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions & Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. She is a regular columnist for When not working, Naomi's passion is skiing deep powder. Contact her at or via her Web site,

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