The old adage: “no news is good news” means that if we hear nothing then nothing is wrong. In other words silence is good. There is a deep assumption that people only share with others the details of events that conflict with their expectations: where something has failed, disappointed; broken; shocked or at the very least surprised them. If things are going as expected or hoped then there is, it is assumed, nothing to report that would interest anyone else.
The idea that only negative stories are of interest has led our news media to be heavily skewed towards tales of doom and gloom and it has been argued, in fact, that “good news is no news”. In spite of the world being happier, healthier and more prosperous than ever before, we are bombarded with the stories of war, disease and criminality gathered from around the globe to fill up our TV News schedule. Good news stories are too often relegated to “The One Show” or other light entertainment programmes: they are treated as less important.
This bias is no surprise. Humans are programmed to attend to threats; this helps us either avoid or deal with the threat and keep ourselves safe. We are also hard wired to attend to whatever is new. From babies we notice when a new toy is introduced, or a new sound is heard and our attention is re-awakened. This helps guide our learning through exploration of our environment. New things are not necessarily bad; but they are those things that surprise us as different to the norm.
The problem is, our preference to treat good news as less worthy of attention results in a fundamental weakness to how we manage people’s performance. “Giving feedback” is usually seen as synonymous with giving negative feedback. After all, if the person is doing well or doing what you expect them to do then what is there you can actually say that would be of any interest.
The difficulty here is that if feedback is either not given at all, or only given when there is something negative then the overall impact, for the receiver, is to feel demoralised, discouraged and to lose trust with the feedback giver. With children, we can see disruptive behaviours increasing if these are the only behaviours that are noticed and rewarded with the parent’s attention. More generally, through a process of “learned helplessness”, people stop exploring and trying to learn or improve if their efforts only result in further negative responses; in other words they become depressed.
Within the workplace, managers must turn this core bias on its head. The truth is that “no news is most definitely bad news” for people if you want them to feel motivated and to grow. Performance management feedback cannot simply consist of the main dramatic headlines: the things that have gone wrong. Feedback must principally focus on developing a person’s sense of worth and their self-efficacy – their belief that they can do well. And this means constantly reinforcing good performance by noticing, discussing and planning how to repeat and extend the successful behaviours. It is assumed that when someone does something right they will know this and understand why and therefore do this again. However, through a combined lack of self-awareness and recognition from others; it is just as likely that good behaviours will ultimately be abandoned. Furthermore, when the manager really does need to deliver some bad news; the receiver is more likely to fixate on this and potentially experience a deterioration in performance and motivation.
When sharing feedback, make it:
● Principally focussed on what went right and how to do this again
● Only offer negative feedback as an additional way to build on past success.