The Feedback Challenge

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Richard Broyer
  • 92nd Medical Support Squadron commander
Quite possibly the most horrific psychology experiment ever conducted the so-called, "Monster Study", relied on unethical methods to determine the effects of positive and negative speech therapy on children. Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa selected 22 orphan children, some with stutters and some without. He engaged the stutterers in positive speech therapy, praising them for their fluency, and the non-stutterers in negative speech therapy, belittling them for every mistake. The stutterers in the group who received positive feedback showed slight improvements in fluency. Many of the children who received negative speech therapy, suffered psychological effects and retained speech problems for the rest of their lives. Both are examples of the significance of positive and negative reinforcement.

There is no arguing that the feedback we receive has the potential to powerfully influence our ability to succeed. However, I'm not convinced that the "Monster Study", aside from its reckless methods, reached the most optimal conclusion on the matter of motivation. I certainly don't advocate for the use of belittling or other forms of damaging negative feedback in any circumstance. Yet, I'd like to suggest that there is room for both positive feedback, in the form of uplifting encouragement, and negative feedback, in the form of honest performance assessment...even when it means critiquing poor performance. The trick for us as supervisors, parents, teachers and coaches is knowing when to use positive feedback or when it may be more appropriate to rely on negative feedback.

Motivational research has indicated that positive feedback encourages us to repeat behaviors that lead us toward our goal when it signals our commitment, but not when it signals sufficient progress. On the other hand, negative feedback encourages us to try harder when we fail, if that failure signals insufficient progress. In simpler terms, positive feedback is useful when trying to develop expertise, while negative feedback is more useful for sustaining and continually improving expertise already grasped. When we are just starting to learn, we need more encouragement to inspire self-confidence and build commitment. As that commitment increases through expertise, it is more important to receive critical feedback that allows us to clearly determine our progress.

Research shows that negative feedback has its place, but keep in mind that it requires thoughtful application when motivating others. The key is to make negative feedback precise and timely enough to be of help while keeping it neutral enough so it doesn't come off as harshly critical. This is a challenge in a culture that views anything shy of blatant praise as an insult.

It's likely that we are unaware that our fellow Airmen, our children and members of our teams would like to know how to improve. More importantly, they deserve to know. As we seek to instill a culture of excellence in our Air Force and in our homes, we must look at feedback as an opportunity to make someone perform better rather than feel better.