When managers give performance reviews, they sometimes praise, but they usually offer criticism, looking more often at the things that employees did wrong, or where they fell short.

That is only natural – it’s something we all do.  And many believe that criticism leads to better performance than praise.  After a critical review, an employee’s work seems to improve; while after getting praise, his or her work appears to be as good.  So, that would naturally lead a manager to conclude that criticism works better than praise.

But research has shown that what is going on here isn’t what we might think.  The causes and effects aren’t what we often think they are.  It’s true that performance improves after criticism, but it probably wasn’t the criticism that made the difference.

What is going on here is what statisticians call regression to the mean.  The work people do isn’t uniform.  It varies each day.  This is certainly not a profound observation; people aren’t at their best or their worst every day.  That’s why, for example, when we judge the quality of an athlete, we don’t look at just one or two games.  We look at a whole season, and even a whole career.  We look at his or her average play over a certain time, which statisticians call the mean performance.

Those who have studied this issue of mean performance have found that a superior performance usually is followed by one that is sub-par.  And it goes the other way too.  If someone turns in a less-than-stellar performance, it is usually followed by one that is better than average.  This is not intentional.  It’s just part of the range of performance of which we are all capable.  Our performance tends to cluster around a mean, or average.

So, knowing this, it becomes easier to see why criticism appears to work better than praise.  When we evaluate someone, we tend to look at his or her most recent work, as opposed to the employee’s performance over a long period of time.  So, if someone has just turned in a poor performance, we offer criticism, and his or her performance usually improves.  But this improvement is the result of the regression to the mean – a  poor performance is more likely to be followed by a good one, and vice versa.  And so this leads to more criticism than praise.

But more research is showing that positive reinforcement – developing a person’s strengths — has more of an effect on a person’s work than criticism.

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