A recent CBS Sunday Morning report delved into the subject of criticism, specifically to answer the question, "Why are unpleasant experiences so hard to forget?" Research shows that humans are much more likely to recall and to be influenced by negative experiences than positive ones. "Some people do have a more positive outlook," says Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, "but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail."
According to psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (Harmony Books), the outsized impact of bad news is a vestige of our caveman past when our lives depended on being able to remember danger. Scientists call the phenomenon negativity bias and it manifests itself in the physical workings of the brain where positive and negative stimuli are processed and stored differently. At least two areas of the brain--the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex--work harder to process criticism, using about two-thirds of the neurons to focus on the negative. Bad news is placed in long-term memory more quickly than good news while many positive experiences go straight to short-term memory and are only stored longer-term if we actively think about them for 12 seconds or longer.
In the Workplace
It should come as no surprise that researchers have found negativity bias in the workplace. Scientists have studied professionals to see what makes a day good or bad. The findings showed that when professionals made even the slightest step forward on a project, their day was good; however, a minor setback resulted in a bad day. Furthermore, they found that the negative setbacks were more than twice as strong as the positive steps forward when relating to the individual's happiness that day. "We found that of all the events that could make for a great day at work, the most important was making progress on meaningful work even a small step forward," said Professor Amabile, co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). "A setback, on the other hand, meant the employee felt blocked in some way from making such progress. Setbacks stood out on the worst days at work."
What Can a Supervisor Do?
This suggests among other things that the time-honored management tool, sometimes referred to as the criticism sandwich---offering someone a few words of praise, then getting to the meat of the problem, and finally adding a few more words of praise---may not be nearly as effective as once thought. Professor Nass suggests managers offer praise after criticism, not before, so that the praise actually makes an impression on the receiver. And because most people can take-in only one critical comment at a time, don't wait for the annual review to deliver a list of comments that may be construed as negative.
Finally, be aware of the impact you have on employees when you do not recognize their progress, especially on projects that require focus, concentration and commitment. Don't heap meaningless praise on employees or, for that matter, our children or friends, Nass says, but when you must criticize, do it constructively and sparingly.
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