Reframe Negative Feedback from Accusation to Contribution

January 24, 2022
Franki Kung

Imagine a time when someone in your project team is not meeting expectations. Or a time when your close friend or sibling engaged in troubling behavior. You may want to speak up, share your observation, hoping that your feedback will help them change and improve. While the need to share feedback is prevalent and essential in many settings, it is also common for people to find giving feedback challenging, especially when it comes to delivering negative feedback.

For many, giving negative feedback means pointing out faults in someone. This is referred to as taking a mode of accusation: “We lost the game because of your mistakes,” “your work was bad; that’s why our team did poorly” ... Disparaging feedback can feel intuitive, and the actual accusations may be warranted. However, doing so could harm the feedback receiver’s motivation and well-being. It can escalate a difficult enough conversation into an even bigger dispute. How can we deliver negative feedback that gets the point across and motivates change? What is the alternative?

As shown in a series of experimental studies, one simple approach is to shift from our default mode of accusation to a mode of contribution, highlighting potential contributions people could have made (Kung & Scholer, 2018). In contrast to accusations, a contribution mode of delivering negative feedback focuses on the learning and potential gains: “We could have done better,” “we will be so much better next time if we can improve on these areas” …

Zhixu Yang

This does not mean you should turn negative feedback into positive feedback or praises. Everyone needs timely negative feedback because it is essential for personal growth and success. Instead of erasing the negativity, a contribution mode of negative feedback constructively reframes negativity, focusing on learning and contributions that help make the message encouraging and supportive. After all, it is often the encouragement and social support that motivates people to change, not the negative information per se.

The next time when you see the need to offer negative feedback, we encourage you to take a second to frame your feedback in a contribution mode. You can highlight the potential contributions the person could have made, and offer both needed information and support to help them realize their potential.

Franki Kung and Zhixu (Rick) Yang

Key References

  • Kung, F. Y. H., & Scholer, A. A. (2018). Message framing influences perceptions of feedback (In)directness. Social Cognition, 36(6), 626–670.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most (2nd ed.). Penguin Books.

Dr. Franki Kung is an Assistant Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology and directs the Purdue's Conflict and Mindset Collaboratory at Purdue University. His interdisciplinary research generates knowledge to improve conflict management of individuals and organizations.

Zhixu (Rick) Yang is a Ph.D. student in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Purdue University, working with Dr. Franki Kung in the Conflict and Mindset Collaboratory. He graduated from Zhejiang University in 2020 with a BS in Psychology. His research examines strategies in goal pursuit and conflict management to improve individual and collective well-being.

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