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!)