How do you encourage other people when they are changing their behavior? Chances are you want to be supportive, so you focus on saying positive things to people. And that can be great. But there are several potential problems that lurk when you give feedback to others.
The comments you make to other people affect the way that they characterize their goals. It’s common to want to talk to people about the progress they’re making toward a goal they’re working on. However, there is a danger that if most of your discussion focuses on progress toward reaching some end state, then people may develop outcome goals rather than process goals.
When you see a friend who is on a diet and has been losing a lot of weight, it’s tempting to tell her that she look greats and she must feel wonderful. It feels good for someone to hear positive comments, and this feedback will often be encouraging.
However, if you end the discussion there, then the only feedback your friend is getting is about her progress toward an outcome. Instead, continue the discussion. Ask about what she is doing that has allowed her to be so successful. What is she eating? Where is she working out? What are the lifestyle changes she has made? When the conversation focuses on the process of change rather than the outcome, it reinforces the value of creating a sustainable process whose side effect is the desired long-term contribution.
Feedback Can Inadvertently Influence People's Mindset
In addition, feedback can influence the mind-set people adopt about behavior and motivation. People often give others feedback that inadvertently reinforces an entity mindset. If you see a friend on a diet at a party eating a small plate of fruit, you might say to him, “Wow, you have remarkable willpower, I couldn’t do that.” On the surface, this is a compliment. However, underlying this statement is the idea that willpower is an entity that cannot be changed. The dieter might be exhibiting great willpower in that circumstance, but if he gives in to temptation in some other circumstance, does that now mean that he has now reached the limits of his willpower?
It is better to give positive feedback that does not reinforce an entity mind-set. For that same dieter, you say, “I’m impressed that you have managed to avoid all of these tempting desserts. What is your secret?” You are still providing a positive message, but you are not assuming that there is some fixed capacity for willpower. Instead, you’re inviting him to tell you about all of the strategies he has put together to support his success at sticking to his diet under difficult circumstances. This kind of feedback promotes an incremental mind-set, which acknowledges that most abilities are skills that can be nurtured.
Tailoring Your Feedback to a Person’s Stage of Change
Finally, the encouragement you give needs to be tailored to a person’s stage of change. Research by Ayelet Fishbach and her colleagues at the University of Chicago shows that positive and negative feedback have different influences on people. Positive feedback helps make people more committed to a goal. Negative feedback is particularly good for spurring people to make more progress.
When people are first starting to change their behavior, positive feedback is valuable because it helps people feel a greater sense of commitment toward the goal they want to achieve. Over time, however, people shift their own thinking away from their overall commitment to the goal to their sense of progress. At that point, they are motivated by negative feedback, which reminds them of the distance between where they are now and where they would like to be.
Giving Negative Feedback is Challenging
Although it can be difficult to give people negative feedback, it is important to be willing to make people uncomfortable when working with them to change behavior. If you’re helping people to manage their careers, then you can use discomfort to help them get motivated to seek a promotion. If you focus people on what still remains to be achieved in their careers, then they feel bad about their current job but are motivated to move upward.
To give people negative feedback, though, you have to be willing to overcome your natural tendency to be agreeable. Remind yourself that giving negative feedback to people who are already committed to behavior change can spur them to improve and to advance in their careers. So even though it may be difficult to be the bearer of bad news, it is also important.
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©2014 by Art Markman PhD. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
The Penguin Group/Perigee. www.penguin.com
Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others
by Art Markman PhD.
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About the Author
Art Markman, PhD, the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. As a consultant he has worked with large companies, including Procter & Gamble, for which he developed a number of training programs. He has worked with Drs Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen on two of their bestselling You books and contributes to their social networking website, YouBeauty. He is also on the scientific advisory boards for The Dr. Phil Show and The Dr. Oz Show. Art Markman blogs regularly for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, 99U, and Harvard Business Review online. Visit him on Facebook.
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