Post by: Francesca Gina | Harvard Business Review | Published on: 09/16/2016


Think about the people at work who are part of your network — the individuals who help you improve your performance or provide you with emotional support when you are going through a tough spell. If you’re like most people, the colleagues who come to mind are those you get along with and who have a good impression of you. But has anyone in your network actually given you tough feedback?

Your likely answer is “not many.” As I discovered in recent research I conducted with Paul Green of Harvard Business School and Brad Staats of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people tend to move away from those who provide feedback that is more negative than their view of themselves. They do not listen to their advice and prefer to stop interacting with them altogether. It seems that people tend to strengthen their bonds with people who only see their positive qualities.

In one of our studies, we used four years of archival data on over 300 full-time employees at a United States-based food manufacturing and agribusiness company. The company has a fluid structure that gives employees some discretion in defining the scope, responsibilities, and deliverables of their role on an annual basis.

Employees also are responsible for providing feedback to coworkers. In fact, there is no managerial review processes. Every year, each employee completes a self-evaluation and reviews each of his or her identified colleagues from the past year. The online self-evaluation and peer-review questionnaires are identical (e.g., evaluating oneself and others on dimensions such as “Leadership & Initiative,” “Communication and Coordination,” and “Organizational Skill”), and the latter leaves room for constructive comments.

To examine how employees responded to feedback they received from others in their work networks, we looked at data from this peer-review process and from the organization’s annually collected data on each employee’s existing network. We focused on relationships that were discretionary — those that employees can voluntarily continue or drop based on the specific projects or initiatives they choose to undertake. (They don’t have that choice for obligatory relationships — those with employees who share a job function or are in the same functional area.)

We found that in the year following feedback, an employee was more likely to eliminate someone from his or her network who offered “disconfirming” feedback (i.e., feedback that is more negative than one’s own self-evaluation) than a reviewer who provided “confirming” feedback. More specifically, when a colleague’s review was one point lower on a seven-point scale than one’s own self-review, the employee was 44% more likely to drop the relationship with that colleague.

We also found that when receiving negative feedback from fellow colleagues with whom they must retain a working relationship, employees tried to create a more hospitable network by seeking new colleagues who were relatively disconnected from their current circle.

In follow-up laboratory studies, we found that people engage in such behaviors because disconfirming feedback threatens their own views of their skills and accomplishments. For instance, in one study, we asked more than 300 college and graduate students to work on a series of short tasks with another person (in reality, this “person” was a computerized response). First, they were asked to write a creative short story. After writing their stories, participants were asked to assess their own level of creativity based on what they had written. After a few minutes, they received feedback from their “partner.” Participants received a score from their evaluator that was either two points higher or lower on creativity than their own self-assessment. Participants indicated whether they found the feedback threatening or not.

Next, participants were told they would complete a trivia quiz and could earn a bonus if they and their partner answered all the questions correctly. They could choose to either continue working with the same participant they had been paired with or be paired with a different one for the quiz.

The result? People were less likely to choose to interact with those who gave them disconfirming (relative to confirming) feedback because they perceived it to be a threat to their view of themselves. While 28% of participants who received disconfirming feedback chose to be paired with a new partner for the trivia task, only 7% of those who received confirming feedback opted to do so.

As it turns out, these behaviors are detrimental to performance. In our research at the food-manufacturing and agribusiness company, we obtained data on the financial bonuses employees received annually based on their performance. Using this data, my colleagues and I found that dropping relationships that provide disconfirming reviews led to decreases in performance in the succeeding year. And those who indulged in finding relationships with those who were relatively unconnected to their existing social network performed poorly in the subsequent year relative to those who refrained from this confirmation-seeking behavior.

This is not surprising. Our research and studies conducted by others suggest that people tend to focus on the positive aspects of their own character, personality, and behavior and discount the negative ones. More specifically, they do a poor job of evaluating their own performance. This is costly: Being aware of your weaknesses and shortcomings — whether you like it or not — is critical to your improvement.

The message is clear: If you are serious about improving at work, then you should be sure to develop and nurture relationships with people who are willing to give you that tough feedback.


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