Unfortunately, delivering “bad news” is not rewarding, even if it is the right thing to do. The difficult conversation may be met with a defensive and emotional reaction and upset the person you work with. It will certainly not endear you to that person, at least not in the short term. It may create complications and many hours of conversations. It is so much easier to simply focus on the “positive.”

Somehow, the “positive” has become such a cultural force. Everyone has somehow learned that positive reinforcement is better and accepted that truism. Feedback about weaknesses to be corrected or about people lacking skills is labeled as “negative” thinking and frowned upon. We would rather stereotype and rationalize than simply ask people to correct a behavior that they could both be unaware of and absolutely willing to correct. We would rather talk about how “Jennifer is a typical millennial” rather than telling Jennifer that she should not be looking at her cell phone during staff meetings.

While positive feedback is very effective and should be used heavily, nature certainly has made sure we also pay attention to negative feedback. We learn to recognize nettles because they sting. We only touch a hot plate once. Negative reinforcement works pretty well. We ideally don’t need to use it, but sometimes there is no other way to explain why that beautiful-looking black-and-yellow bug that makes the interesting buzzing sound is not really a good pet.

In an article published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, researchers Ayelet Fishbach, Tal Eyal and Stacey Finkelstein studied students who were learning foreign languages and noticed that while beginners were best motivated by encouragement, advanced students not only welcomed corrections but actively sought them. The authors quote similar research following people who pursued weight loss or training in an athletic skill. The research showed that positive feedback is indeed much better at motivating beginners, but as their study subjects became more advanced, they not only reacted well to but sought negative feedback.

This suggests that if we are managing or mentoring employees very early in their career, we may be best served to ask them to repeat the positive behavior and not dwell excessively on their weaknesses. On the other hand, if we are mentoring employees who are aspiring to be leaders and who are well advanced in their career but still developing, corrective feedback should not only be part of our coaching process but in fact may very well be welcome. There is no reason to correct beginners or those who are about to retire, but everyone else could fix a thing or two.

Actually, the very business owners who fear asking their team members to do something difficult are often perfect examples of the value of perseverance. None of the owners I work with went to Harvard or any other Ivy League school (except for one guy who will tell you that he did within a few minutes of meeting him). They built their careers on very hard work and perseverance. When I talk to firm founders, they never describe themselves as “talented” but instead use terms such as “dedicated,” “competitive” and “willing to learn and do whatever they can.” They are often very open to learning something new and in fact they often ask “What am I doing wrong?” Yet for some reason, they are afraid to ask team members to do the same.

Growth comes out of discomfort. I read somewhere that the famous surfer Laird Hamilton practiced standing with bare feet on golf balls so that he could learn to tolerate the discomfort and pain. On the wall near the canal where the famous University of Washington crew team practices and races, one of the teams wrote “It is a pain contest!” I have seen that same attitude in many of the successful business owners I have worked with. They embrace the discomfort and even take pride in it. They know that the high levels of achievement never come without some pain.

This is not a call for negative attitudes and thinking. You do not have to start your day by making a list of the things you do poorly. Then again, starting your day by telling yourself you are awesome won’t do it either. Nor is this a call to scream at your employees about all the things they are doing wrong. But it is also not a good idea to tell them they are great until the day you fire them for poor performance. If you want your colleagues to develop into successful professionals, as a mentor you have the obligation to help them recognize and fix their weaknesses. You can let yourself be the “bad guy” (or “bad girl”) for an hour or for a day, though, so that someone can really develop into a good professional.

­Philip Palaveev is the CEO of the Ensemble Practice LLC. He’s an industry consultant, author of the books G2: Building the Next Generation and The Ensemble Practice and the lead faculty member for the G2 Institute.

First « 1 2 » Next