When you coach someone or conduct a performance appraisal, where do you tend to focus? Probably on “opportunities for improvement,” right? Sure, you mention some positive things, but we’ll bet you spend much more time talking about faults and shortcomings.
If you do, you’re only human. Paying more attention to what’s wrong isn’t wrong-headed or perverse. In fact, you could say you do it because, in your experience, criticism produces better results than praise. Criticism is more often followed by improved performance; and praise is often followed by performance that’s not as good. Hence, you think, praise might be nice and you need to do some of it, but when it comes to improving people’s performance, criticism is the best tool for the job.
Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where the lessons of experience aren’t obvious — and can even be misleading. Your observation that criticism is more often followed by improvement is probably accurate. But what’s going on isn’t what you think. In fact, it’s something called “regression to the mean” and if you don’t understand it, you and your people will be its victims.
Human performance is never completely consistent. That’s true of a violinist, a gymnast, a university lecturer, and it’s true of everyone who works for you — and of you, too. No one performs at their best or worst every day. We all know this and it’s why we assess the true greatness of, say, a soccer player not by her performance in a single game but over a full season or even a playing career. In other words, we look at that player’s average performance over time — or, to use the statistician’s term, her mean performance. If you track someone’s performance task by task, you’ll discover that a great performance, one that’s far above the person’s average or mean, is usually followed by a less-inspiring performance that’s closer to the mean. It works the same the other way. A terrible performance is usually followed by something better. No one’s making or causing this to happen. It’s part of the variability built into human activity, especially when doing something even moderately complex.
The problems and misperceptions arise when we forget this. Why would we forget something so obvious? Because even when we know performance can vary widely around a mean, we tend to give greater weight to someone’s most recent performance. Unconsciously, we consider it a better indicator of overall capability than what happened two days ago or last week. Our minds tend to overrate the importance or accuracy of the latest, most easily available, or most prominent information. When you put these two together, you can see why criticism seems to work better than praise.
Consider some important and moderately difficult task performed regularly by someone who works for you. Let’s say you can rate his performance on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best, and that his average performance over the past months has been only five. So you begin monitoring his work and giving him either positive or negative feedback, criticism or praise, after every performance.
Consequently, when he performs worse than average, since performance naturally varies around a mean, he most likely will perform better the next time even if you say or do nothing — because his performance will naturally regress or move toward his mean or average level. However, since you criticized his performance, you will (mistakenly) conclude that he improved because of your criticism, and you’ll be convinced of this because his latest performance (the latest information you have) will receive great weight in your mind.
In the same way, when your person performs above his mean level, he most likely will perform worse the next time even if you say or do nothing — because, again, his performance is regressing to the mean. Yet, because the poorer performance followed your praise, you’ll conclude it was caused by praise.
Even if you don’t notice these apparent connections consciously, you’re aware of them intuitively. And the most likely consequence will be that you criticize far more than you praise. Unfortunately, that’s a poor recipe for reaching your goal — improving someone’s average performance. A lot of evidence suggests that positive reinforcement — identifying and building on strengths — will produce better results than a relentless focus on faults. This is important. To improve, people need positive feedback. It’s just as important to recognize and reinforce their strengths as it is to point out where they’re falling short. And you need to understand why praise can seem dysfunctional, so you don’t withhold it.
Don’t be misled by experience. Its real lessons aren’t always obvious, and finding them often requires thought, reflection, and analysis. Only when you’re fully aware of what’s happening, and why, can you make the best choice. In this case, that means giving praise as quickly as you criticize.