Positive Feedback v. "Front Stabbing" — The Art of Delivering Constructive Criticism

Stuart Sinclair - August 26, 2016
If you’ve found your managers or even your fellow workers being rather blunt in their comments, you may be experiencing ‘radical frankness’. This is a trend where staff, tired of having to skirt around issues, are favouring a more direct approach to get their point across.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Emma Seppala, of the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, notes how;

“The movement toward radical frankness emerges out of the false assumption that having a supportive workplace is antithetical to honest, straightforward, no-nonsense feedback.”

As a nation, we don’t tend to do straightforward terribly well, but we can be blunt when required. The danger is that bluntness can tip over into ‘front stabbing’, which can be just as counterproductive as wrapping criticism in too many layers of incites. As Sepalla says:

“Not only can feedback given in a supportive way be honest, it is immeasurably more effective than blunt criticism in three critical ways: It motivates performance, is less likely to be misinterpreted, and uplifts rather crushing employees.”

It is interesting to see that the author is writing about these issues in what is normally considered the native habitat of positivity - high-ranking US businesses. Sepalla cites how a positive work environment can increase productivity, reduce turnover of staff, and ensure a healthier, happier workforce. Equally,

“Honest and candid feedback, when given in a supportive way, foster higher performance and employee resilience. When given in a harsh and denigrating way, it destroys motivation and engagement.”

So how can we as managers ensure criticism is delivered in the right way?

Book a demo and discover how our modular internal communication app can  increase employee engagement at your company.

The 5:1 ratio

We need to remember to give positive feedback as often as possible, preferably in the ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative. That’s because as human being we are hard-wired to focus on the negative. You may have a simply amazing meal and feel it had been ruined when you got stuck in traffic on the way home. The two may be unconnected but the overall feeling is of negativity.

Read What is employee engagement in reality?

Build strengths in your colleagues

Sepalla sums this up very neatly:

“By focusing on their weaknesses, we only create competence. By focusing on their strengths, we create excellence.”

Or, as motivational speaker Mike Hawkins puts it:

“You don’t get results by focusing on results. You get results by focusing on the actions that produce results.”

Be kind

This is perhaps at the core of the whole honest v frontstabbing debate. US businesswoman Eileen Fisher attributes much of her success to this approach:

“I try to be kind no matter what. There is more collaboration when you come from kindness.”

If our aim is to foster collaboration and cooperation, then we might need to be kinder, but genuinely so. Sepalla suggests that business leaders should be

“Creating psychologically safe work environments by emphasizing positive, authentic communication.”

The TalkFreely employee communication app has a whole system built in for that anyone can give positive feedback and recognition to any other colleague. We call it Kudos, and it’s important because it is peer to peer and genuine - nobody is obliged to give it.

Read Employee Engagement App? What to look for...

All new ideas can be rated using a simple five star system, enabling employees to recognise ideas that stand out from there best. As managers, we can see what level of feedback and ratings any individual is giving, to spot any rising negativity trends and resolve with support as required.

This is not to say that businesses should shy away from being more direct, but do so bearing in mind the benefits of positivity. As Sepalla says:

“You can be both candid and caring.”

Employee Engagement App Demo