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Why I Love Negative Feedback.

Feedback is crucial to the exercise of effective and efficient leadership. Positive feedback tells us that we're on track. Negative feedback tells us that we need to get back on track. A building's climate-control system provides a good analogy. Temperature and humidity gauges provide the needed feedback to the system to keep the building's atmosphere within a set range.

1. Failure is negative feedback.

Failure is about missing the mark and is therefore a systems management concept. It has nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of a goal, an individual, or a team. We have to take emotions out of the assessment equation (although not the actual communication and leadership process). Take driving for instance. The speedometer, steering wheel, navigation system, and other gauges are just feedback mechanisms that tell us whether we're on the right route and going the right speed. They also tell us when to fuel up, to change the oil, etc. Most of the time, we're actually running off the road. The negative feedback we get from the speed gauge, the steering wheel, our direction, the road signs, and other vehicles allows us to make tiny adjustments on a continuing basis.

2. Negative feedback conveys more information than positive feedback.

Positive feedback gives us very little information. It says, "Yes, everything is okay." On the other hand, negative feedback conveys a lot more information. Negative feedback is any sign we're off track to the goal or result we're aiming for. The question then becomes: Why are you off track? It is critical to identify measures of performance beforehand. These must be relevant, so they convey important information about the reasons for being off track, and they must do this in a timely and effective manner.

3. It's about performance, not ego.

If you keep in mind that failure is a form of negative feedback, then it will be much easier to keep emotions and ego out of your assessment of progress. For instance, your self-esteem will not be affected in the least because you must constantly correct your speed and direction while driving. You don't break down, depressed, and feel like a failure while driving. Many people and organizations invest way too much emotion in "failure". They worry about their self-worth and what others will think. The reality is that most people are much too self-absorbed most of the time to really care what is going on with others.

4. A demanding goal is likely to lead to more negative feedback.

If you're not failing, then you're not trying hard enough. If you or your organization do something that is routine and well established, it is very likely that you will produce more positive than negative feedback. This conveys little new information and therefore few opportunities for individual and organizational learning. On the other hand, if you are constantly stretching to achieve new goals or old goals at a higher level, then it is very likely that you will be failing frequently. The key is to remember that so called failure is really only negative feedback. The point is to accept the feedback, assess where you are in relation to the goal, and adjust your actions to get back on track.

5. Negative feedback is a learning opportunity.

Always identify what you've learned from any experience, whether positive or negative. It's as important to know why you've succeeded as it is to know why you've failed. However, as we've seen, negative feedback conveys much more information than positive feedback. This is because there is really only one way to be right, while there is an infinite number of ways to be wrong. The experience of working through negative feedback in order to get back on track is extremely demanding, but also very rewarding. Failure is the real source of all learning, so long as it is assessed within the context of a pre-established goal or measure of success.

In conclusion, failure is a form of negative feedback. It only exists as a result of trying something entirely new, or something familiar in a new way. Whether you are assessing your own performance, or that of subordinates and your organization, keep this simple fact in mind. Negative feedback should be prized, for it is a measure of the novelty and challenge of your goals. If you analyze the feedback and use it to adjust your path to the attainment of your goals, then you can't help but come out smarter and with a greater level of achievement and performance.


Richard Martin is the president and founder of Alcera Consulting, where he applies his military training as a Canadian Army officer to a range of business applications. He is the author of the book, Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles. Richard is also the co-founder and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Leadership and Development of Human Capital Inc. Visit:
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Author:Martin, Richard
Publication:Canadian Defence Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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