Proof That Criticism Does Work

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Is our production rate constant over a long enough period of time?

I found an excellent article yesterday that I found to be thought provoking so I thought I would share it with all of you.  The article was on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network and was titled “Why Does Criticism Seem More Effective Than Praise?” 

One of the authors, Linda Hill is a professor at Harvard.  The other author was a gentleman by the name of Kent Lineback.  Mr. Lineback apparently has a great deal of experience as a manager but they really did not go into great detail on that.  At any rate, they were investigating why managers tend to criticize employees far more than they praise them.  This is certainly a question that I have pondered many times, but I have never been able to arrive at the same conclusion that they did.

They argue that managers tend to criticize more because it works.  After being criticized, employee performance tends to improve.   I would have dug in and prepared to debate this belief had I not kept reading.  If you read on you will see that they further explain that performance does improve but that it has absolutely nothing to do with the criticism.

Over the long term our performance levels are fairly consistent.  When you look at performance levels month to month or year to year then they tend to be fairly consistent.  When you look at them in the short term, hour to hour or day to day, then they can fluctuate quite a bit.  In order for our performance to be consistent over the long term, statistically speaking we are likely to have a good day after having a bad day.  When your employees have bad performance days then your tendency is to coach them and inspire them to perform better.  Miraculously the next day their performance improves and you begin to feel like you are the world’s greatest manager.  Would their performance have improved even if you did not coach them? 

The likewise is also true, when an employee has a great performance day then statistically speaking they are likely to follow it up with a low performance day.  So if you praise them after they had a good day, then you will note that it immediately caused their performance to drop off.  Better stop praising people.

If I am to believe this information, then managers are tricked into believing that their criticism is far more effective than their praise.   Managers therefore tend to stick with what works, so they end up offer far more criticism than praise. 

If this is all true, then our actual goal is to raise someone’s average.  There will be good days and bad days no matter what we do, but we can help employees to raise their overall production average.  I think that the best way to do this is develop them.  Allowing them to develop their skills through training, coaching, or simply exposing them to new ideas is the best way to improve the overall production average. 

Please read the article for yourself.  It is short and well written. 

Please share your thoughts.  First, do you think this is true?  Are we more likely to have a bad day after having a good day?  What can we do to raise our overall production average as well as the production average for our employees?


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