Receiving criticism is never fun. That’s it. That’s the truth. But sometimes it’s necessary so that you can learn from your mistakes.
Now, also being a manager who has to give any sort of negative feedback isn’t easy either. In fact this research conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman in two surveys shows that 44% of managers say they find it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback, while one-fifth avoid the practice entirely. But on top of that, nearly 40% of leaders say they never give positive reinforcement either.
Which is kinda understandable. Telling someone that their work or actions aren’t good enough and they need to change is a difficult thing to do and you never know what the fallout might be.
But, there is a kind of solution.
Research from Northwestern University suggests there’s a better time of day to give negative feedback and it’s all to do with our capacity for self-regulation – which is obviously affected by how tired and worn out we feel.
Researchers at the University of Toronto did a study in 2016 called "The strength to face the facts: Self-regulation defends against defensive information processing,” published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, in order to understand who might be better at receiving negative feedback.
The author of the study, Rachel Ruttan, and her colleagues explored the impact of self-regulatory capacities on defensive information processing—the tendency to deny, distort, or avoid diagnostic self-threatening information.
Basically, people who are not so great at self regulation either because of their personalites or because of a temporary state were shown to be far more likely to deny that negative feedback was important or valid or willing to try and improve themselves based on this knowledge. The opposite was true for people high in self-regulatory capacities.
So you want to think about that person’s personality or circumstances at the time you’re going to give them the negative feedback, yes, but there’s also another factor.
There’s additional research in the study that suggests that self-regulation and self control declines as the day progresses. Which seems obvious, but we often forget that factor.
So this is why many psychologists and feedback experts suggest waiting a few hours, or a day, before telling a colleague why exactly their presentation failed or their last report wasn’t as great as it should have been.
“In the moment, feedback can be one of the most painful experiences,” Harvard Law School lecturer Sheela Heen, author of Thanks for the Feedback, told Quartz last year:
“This is partly because of these two core human needs that start off at cross-purposes with each other: On one hand, we actually do want to learn and grow. That’s a big piece of happiness research, and it’s very satisfying. But we also want to be accepted and respected and loved just the way we are now. So when people want us to change it somehow, it suggests that how I am now is not great or not cool.”
So with all this evidence, Rachel then proposed that the best time to give negative feedback is in the morning. No, not when they just get in and haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet, but probably in the first half of the day.
“Given that we found that those low in self-control had a harder time accepting negative feedback, we connected these two findings to propose that people may also be less receptive to negative feedback as the day progresses,” says Rachel.
But also remember to consider what they have going on that day. If they’re having personal problems or they had a really tough meeting, you might want to avoid giving them that feedback as their capacity for self-regulation and motivation to learn from it will probably be low.
Sign up to W24's newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our hot stories and giveaways.