How to give feedback at work or in a relationship

It's the intensity, not the quantity

Posted by Sami Tikka on February 14, 2016

One of the key concepts in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile is, that antifragile systems, like we humans, adapt to constant small stimulus, harm or feedback by effectively making us immune to it. If your goal is to achieve positive or negative change, you have to increase the intensity of the stressor.

I realized the meaning of this, when I thought about what kind of feedback has the best/worst results on work communities. I have heard several times, that we have to give positive and negative feedback based on a proportion, like praise-to-criticism ratio. According to a study, optimal ratio of positive and negative feedback in work and in relationships is about 5-6 to 1. But is this the whole story? Why the small constant praise sometimes loses its effectiveness and we start to pay little attention to it?

Learning to cope with positive and negative

The answer is in the nature of the antifragile system. Our brains and the rest of the body is an antifragile system, that eventually learns how to adjust to small stressors. Our immune system learns to adapt to viruses and bacteria, by developing an immunity to them. It’s good for us to have constant exposure to small amounts of stressors and things that have the ability to make us ill, because we learn how to cope with them. Eventually only an especially strong strains of flu virus will make us sick, if we have a normal immune system that has learned to respond to weaker strains.

The inverse of this effect works too. Small positive feedback eventually loses its effectiveness. Why is this so? I think we might learn to ignore constant praise, so we’d not get carried away by it, and become too convinced of our excellence. In other words, we do it to shield ourselves of our own hubris.

It’s really the intensity of the feedback that matters, not how often we get it. Lot’s of small negative feedback is offset by a large margin and then some by making a big deal of your colleague’s/partner’s success in front of as big an audience as possible.

Intensity of the feedback also affects our remembrance of the occasion; we remember an event more easily, if it stands out from other events of that kind. The phenomenon is called Von Restorff effect, “a bias in favour of remembering the unusual”. If you give high praise, or really go out of your way to surprise a friend, it is remembered much more easily after many years than ordinary compliments or small gestures of good will. After many years, only single defining events can easily dominate our memory of workplace/person/time. And vice versa for negative comments and actions.

How to not give feedback

Based on our brains tendency to adjust to intensity of the feedback, the absolute worst way to give feedback is to make a big deal of a failure. Even if he/she can take it, because of the Von Restorff effect, that kind of isolated event affects how he/she will eventually remember the whole time working at that company or being in that relationship. If we are exposed to that kind of feedback many times, we are quite likely to resign from our job or eventually to end our relationship.

A good way to give criticism is to do it in private, not to make it a big deal (even if it is) and focus on how to make it better. When things get better, don’t forget to give big praise.

Things that make a good workplace

Some cultures are more attuned to positive praise than others. In some cultures, people go out of their way to celebrate successes, and handle the failures gracefully. In other cultures, failures can be handled very visibly, and people are also not used to having or giving big praise in any occasion.

I think the culture of giving feedback is ultimately the single most important thing that makes a job good place to be. At the end of the day, money, small perks or responsibility are not very meaningful when creating a good workplace and making people stay. It’s the intensity of the praise and the lack of intensity of the criticism people get that matters most and defines the culture at work.