Oh, the joys of being criticized.
There’s nothing like being told you’re bad at something, especially when the dig comes from someone you respect. Some, including my former employer, harangue you into believing that every piece of feedback is a gift—no matter how badly it stings. These people are probably right. They also make me want to slam my head into a wall.
The truth, of course, is that without criticism we cannot improve. However, negative feedback can easily trigger defensiveness, which is a great way to stifle learning of any kind. Even pointing out a spelling error may piss someone off, if delivered in the wrong way, or at the wrong time.
As a manager, these sensitivities can make giving feedback intimidating. Per recent research, 44% of managers say they find it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback, and one-fifth avoid the practice entirely. Even more surprisingly, nearly 40% of leaders conceded to never giving positive reinforcement, either.
However, research from Northwestern University suggests there may be an optimal time to give negative feedback. This timing has to do with our capacity for self-regulation, which plummets when we’re worn out.
In their 2016 study “The strength to face the facts: Self-regulation defends against defensive information processing,” published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers at the University of Toronto set out to understand who might be more receptive to negative feedback.
“Specifically, we thought that people high in self-control (i.e., high in the capacity to override their impulses, either at a trait-based, individual level, or as a temporary state) and those high in self-improvement motivation would be more able to withstand the short-term pains of accepting negative feedback in order to yield the long-term rewards,” study author Rachel Ruttan, an organizational behavior professor at the university, told Quartz via email.
Through five studies, 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.
People who are both low in self-regulatory capacities—both as a personality trait, and temporary state—were significantly more likely to deny the validity and importance of negative feedback, and were less willing to seek self-improvement based on this knowledge. The opposite was true for people high in self-regulatory capacities. The researchers ruled out explanations for these results based on self-esteem and competence-based deficits.
Additional research cited in Ruttan’s study suggests that people’s capacity for self-regulation and self-control declines as the day progresses. This isn’t particularly surprising, said Ruttan: The more tired and worn down we get, the less patience we have, and the more testy we can become. This is why many psychologists and feedback experts suggest waiting a few hours, or a day, before critiquing a colleague if they’re upset about their performance, like a failed presentation.
“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.”
For many of us, this dissonance gets worse as the day progresses, which led Ruttan to her proposal that the best time to give negative feedback is in the morning. Perhaps not first thing when your colleague walks into the office—best to let them settle in. But in the first half of the day, for sure:
“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,” said Ruttan.
While there’s no specific day of the week that’s best for negative feedback, managers would be smart to heed their employees’ personal lives, said Ruttan. If they have a tough meeting, or trouble at home on a given day, avoid giving negative feedback, as their capacity for self-regulation and motivation to learn from it will probably be low.
Beyond timing, one of the most effective ways to optimize learning from criticism is to combine it with positive feedback, said Ruttan: “We like hearing that we’re doing well, and positive feedback has been found to increase positive affect and mood. And feeling good can serve as a resource enabling people to tackle negative feedback.”