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The Art of Failure Part 1: 3 Ways to Make Negative Feedback Effective September 25, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Coaching, Communication, Discipline, Family, Football, Learning, Love, Parenting/Children, Self-Worth, Sports.

In electronics, taking the output from a circuit and sending it back to the input is called “positive feedback.” This configuration tends to find an optimum mode or frequency, and reinforces it. However, if left unchecked, positive feedback can “runaway.” Even if you’re unfamiliar with electronics, you’ve probably experienced the downside of this phenomenon when a microphone starts picking up the output from a speaker (even in a hearing aid), and you get a telltale “squeal” (more formally called “oscillation”)


In contrast, changing the polarity of the signal and doing the same thing is called “negative feedback.” Done properly, this tends to reduce distortion at the output, and makes the amplified signal more closely resemble the input. Though not as susceptible to “runaway,” too much negative feedback in a circuit can be bad too, as it can completely negate any gain of the circuit. Nature abounds with systems that depend on both positive and negative feedback, and social systems are no different. After looking at the nature of both, I’m going to share three ways that I’ve found to make the most of negative feedback.

Are You Positive?
In parenting circles, “building the child’s self-esteem” has been all the rage for the past 20 years or so. Everywhere you turned, there was another book telling you how important it was to give your son or daughter regular, positive feedback.

As a result, the 80’s and 90’s saw an endless parade of “feel good” approaches to parenting. At the extremes, anything that suggested to the child that they had made a mistake was deemed “bad parenting,” and a generation of toddlers heard “Honey, Daddy doesn’t like you doing that” instead of a simple and firm “NO!”

The results varied (as is always the case in assessing parenting styles, isolating a single factor is problematic), but most of my friends who favored this approach came to regret it. Some of them did not see bad side-effects for a few years, but others saw problems immediately. Invariably, the “ultra-positive” parents found themselves saddled with spoiled brats.

Negative Implications
As is the case in electronics, too much negative feedback in a social context also becomes destructive. Who hasn’t witnessed the side-effects of verbal abuse? The poster-child for abusive coaching seems to be Bobby Knight, the former mens’ basketball coach at Indiana University. Interestingly, most of his critics are not students or former students, but are people who are embarrassed by the public perception of his behavior.

Regardless of your personal feelings about Bobby Knight’s on-court or in-practice behavior, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a vast majority of his players felt he pushed them to greater success than they would have had with any other coach. How was he able to be give such intensely negative feedback (what he’s so often criticized for) without creating resentment and hatred from his players? If you get past the flame and the heat, what else was present in his technique?

Below are some characteristics that I’ve seen in many coaches and parents. In each case, I am thinking of people who are consensus candidates for the “Bobby Knight” award. They are passionate, results-driven, demanding people. They are intensely emotional. Invariably, they create this strange bond with their players/children/subordinates. The “coached” involved seem to have little doubt about the love of the “coach.”

Strategy 1: Tune the Feedback to Specific Outcomes
Most coaches know the larger outcomes they would like: a winning record, undefeated season, consensus All-American players, and the like. Likewise, most parents know the ultimate outcomes they want for their children: good grades, graduate from high school and college, successful occupation, and so on. Along the same lines, most bosses know that they want their department to be successful, they want to be profitable, want to grow the business, and on and on it goes.

In contrast, the effective coach/parent/boss knows the “little outcomes” they want. They can describe to you, in detail, the smaller behaviors that they want to see. They may or may not have broken it down this way, but those behaviors are ultimately components of the larger outcomes that all of us look for. It’s the difference between seeing a skyscraper and saying “I want something like that,” and seeing steel-reinforced concrete and saying “I want this… with this, I can build a skyscraper.”

In short, you have to know all the outcomes you want beforehand. A sure sign of problems is when you say “I’m not sure what I want, but I know I don’t want that.”

Knowing what you want in the small outcomes makes it easy to identify what you don’t want. This allows for purposefully shaping the behavior and growth toward an intended outcome. It’s the difference between indiscriminantly cutting limbs from a tree compared to careful pruning.

Strategy 2: Tune the Feedback to the Actual Output
Have you ever had someone pick apart your performance in something, and think “Were they even there? None of that applies in any way to what really happened.” This sometimes is the result of a performance review, where the reviewer is trying to figure out what to say, and feels compelled to say something, even if it doesn’t really apply.

Experienced football coaches are famous for answering the question “What did you think of the game?” with the following response: “I’ll tell you after I watch the film.” It’s very accurate to say that, until you’ve watched the film (that is to say, carefully dissected virtually every play, using freeze-frame and slow motion), you haven’t really seen the game. On countless occassions I have felt that a player had an outstanding game, but upon reviewing the film, discovered that he only made a couple of spectacular, attention-grabbing plays.

Unfortunately, parents and bosses don’t usually have “game film” to review. This makes it even harder to base the feedback on what’s really there–on what really happened. However, it’s no less important.

If you give negative feedback that the recipient knows doesn’t relate to what they’ve really done, all you’re doing is generating resentment. This is equivalent to blindly applying an inverted (corrective) signal to a circuit that is not producing anything at that frequency. With people, the results are predictably bad, and will typically pivot around that issue.

Strategy 3: Time the Feedback to the Time of the Output
Almost as bad as giving feedback for things that haven’t happened is giving feedback long after the incorrect behavior happened. In electrical terms, we talk about “propogation delays” that keep a signal from reaching its destination in a timely manner.

In personal terms, it becomes the “Why didn’t you tell me that when it happened?” If it wasn’t important enough to comment on it at the time, why talk about it now?

Beyond the feeling of “dredging up the past,” delaying negative feedback makes it inherently less accurate. How likely am I to accurately remember the details well enough to give legitimate correction? Furthermore, there’s always a chance that the outcomes I’m shooting for will have changed. This can lead the receiver of the feedback to say things like, “If I’d known then what you want me to do now, we could have avoided this. Unfortunately, you’ve changed what you seem to want!”

Three Rights Make it Right
There are probably lots of parents, coaches, and bosses who use different strategies than the three I’ve mentioned here. Even so, the strategies I’ve shared here seem to be common to a vast majority of highly intense, frequently negative coaches, parents, and bosses. There’s obviously no guarantee that if you say negative things, the recipient will respond with increased focus/effort. In the follow-up to this entry, I’ll talk about the other side of the equation: How to Accept Critical/Negative Feedback.


1. Lady Ingenious! - September 30, 2006

Wow I love your blogs! I learn so much and this is definately my language! I especialy found it fascinating the topic of negative/positive..the timing and the amount given!And… The issue on the positive parenting rave of the 90s etc is definately right on!

2. Art of Failure Part 2: 3 Ways to Learn from Negative Feedback « A Fool and his Words are Soon Parted - November 10, 2006

[…] In the first half of this essay, I talked about ways to give effective negative feedback. This is difficult, because we’re conditioned to be negative in unhealthy and destructive ways, which encourages some to abandon negative communication altogether. […]

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