They were wrong.
Those who like to learn—presumably some of the best employees—were significantly bothered by the negative feedback they received. The research is a reminder not only of how much people dislike criticism, but of how dangerous performance review tools like rankings and ratings can be.
The researchers based their study on prior findings showing that people are motivated to reach their goals in one of three ways. They either try to prove their competence and get positive feedback, to withdraw from tasks where they might fail and avoid negative feedback, or to focus on learning and developing their skills. "Some people want to learn as much as possible. They want to just do well for their own sake," says Satoris Culbertson, a management professor at Kansas State University. "We thought they would take negative feedback in stride."
In the study, Culbertson and her colleagues asked 234 staffers at a large southwestern university to rate their feelings about a performance review they received three months earlier. They also asked participants a series of questions to determine what type of "goal orientation" they have—that is, whether they like learning new things or whether they try to steer clear of situations where they might fail. Unsurprisingly, those who were most concerned about what other people think (those who either tried to prove their competence or avoid being criticized) hated the negative feedback they got in reviews.
However, so did the people who seemed most intent on learning. Those with the strongest learning goal orientation were still significantly unhappy with the constructive criticism they had received. "We thought if anything they'd be able to take it and apply it to their own jobs," Culbertson says. "But they simply don't like negative feedback, either."
While the findings might seem obvious (who likes to be reminded of their weaknesses?), they emphasize why so much of the effort and energy spent on the performance review process is often wasted. What's meant to be a constructive and helpful discussion quickly gets lost once someone—even those who are sincerely interested in developing their talents and skills—hears critical feedback.
That, to Culbertson, is the key takeaway of the research. If negative feedback has the potential to discourage even the best performers and the most industrious employees, then managers need to be especially careful that what's intended as praise doesn't get misconstrued as criticism. This particularly applies to performance ratings, which HR professionals often plot along a bell curve and use to classify employees' performance.
"It's all relative," Culbertson says. "For a really strong performer, getting a four on a five-point rating scale can be devastatingly bad." Managers, meanwhile, might mean to convey that the person performed really well. "You have to think about what the person is seeing," she says. When it comes to evaluating people's performance, "we can't just put a number on it."