The Value of Balanced Criticism

How often do you go into some sort of 1:1 with your management, and all of the feedback regarding your performance is positive?


I’d imagine if you’re fairly competent at your job and mesh well with your team mates then this is a fairly common occurrence. I can’t remember the last time I received anything other than positive feedback. Honestly, if you are in this situation and reading this you can probably relate — but this is a very large annoyance. No doubt, it’s also a first world problem.

But why is this annoying? Don’t people like positive feedback?

Sure. Everyone likes well-deserved kudos from time to time. But when the feedback is always positive, how should your growth be directed? I’d imagine that your employer might have ideas for how your ability should grow and how it could be used. What better external resource than your employer to tell you where you are strong and where you are weak?

“Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.”
— Edgar Allan Poe

Without this sort of critical feedback, these 1:1 reviews quickly lose their value for high performers. Positive feedback becomes noise when all feedback is positive.

It is the contrast between positive and negative feedback that provides value to both. Let’s look at two extremes:

  1. All feedback is negative.In this case, the employee will end up feeling as though they can’t do anything correctly. Everything they do is being picked apart. Their hard work and effort is not being noticed or is being ignored.

    The employee eventually grows to be resentful of their employer and wonders if they need to start looking for a new job.

  2. All feedback is positive.In this case, the employee ends up feeling as if no one is looking at their work with a critical eye. The employer must not think they are able to grow and they must already be at the peak of their potential.

    The employee starts to wonder if they need to look for a more challenging position.

    If the employee does not decide to look for another job then they may become complacent or stop growing altogether.

Clearly neither of these case are desired.

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
— John Steinbeck

Isn’t negative criticism harder to find in software development?

Maybe. It could be difficult for managers without their fingers in the code to be aware of areas where you need to improve. In this case it is important for the manager to be following up with coworkers or targeting other areas. They should be checking provided estimates as well. Missed estimates may be indicative of gaps in ability, or simply in an employee’s ability to estimate — both of which are areas where criticism can be provided.

If you are aware of upcoming projects or work in other areas then you should ask the employee about their knowledge in these areas and suggest they grow there if other growth areas do not seem applicable. If there are truly no avenues for growth for an employee then it seems likely they are in the wrong position.

So what can you take away from this? If you want happy, engaged, competent employees — provide both negative and positive feedback.

The absolute worst case scenario is when an employee only receives positive criticism during regular 1:1 reviews, and then receives negative criticism during an annual performance review. I’ve been in this case multiple times and it has always made me want to find new work.


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