By Lisa Heay, Marketing Planning Manager at Heinz Marketing

I recently attended a training session for new managers where we did an exercise in demonstrating the value of feedback.  Not just any feedback, but positive, directive feedback.  It seems obvious, right?  Providing valuable feedback heeds productivity, improvements, confident employees, etc.

However, a lot of times it’s easier said than done.  For some, it can be difficult to provide constructive criticism.  It’d be great if everything was awesome all the time, but we all know that isn’t realistic.  There are times when you must deliver a message someone doesn’t necessarily want to hear.

But it is necessary, and this exercise demonstrated it perfectly.

Here’s how it went.  The trainer selected four individuals from the room to wait in the hall.  While they were outside, she taped a square on the floor about 18 inches wide and explained the exercise to the rest of us.  She was going to bring in each person, one by one, blindfolded.  They would be led to about six feet away from the box, and handed several bags of M&Ms.  She would tell them that their job was to throw each bag, one by one, into the box.

Here’s where the rest of the class came in.  For each person who entered the room, the audience was directed to provide a different kind of feedback.  Person one was to get no feedback at all – no matter what they did, said or asked for.  Person two was to only receive positive feedback, no matter how they performed.  Person three was to receive only negative feedback, no matter if they accomplished the job or not, and person four was to receive positive, but directive feedback.

I’m sure you can guess who performed the best amongst the four volunteers, but it was interesting to see how the rest of the exercise played out.

Person one entered the room and was given their instructions, handed the candy, and they were set to begin.  They began to throw—totally missing the box—and waited for someone to let them know how they did.  When the room remained silent, you could see the look of discomfort cross their face.  It was awkward and I felt terrible for that poor volunteer! They proceeded to throw all their bags nervously, in silence, to almost the exact same spot on the floor (outside the box).

Person two entered the room next, were told their instructions, and began throwing.  They were met with all positive feedback— “Yes!  You’re doing a great job!”  “Keep it up!”  “You’re a rock star!” They thought they were killing it!  They were happy, smiling, but you know the end result?  Same as the first person.  Almost every single bag landed in the same spot, outside the box.

Person three entered the room next.  They were met with all negative feedback.  “No, that’s not right.”  “Not even close.” “What were you thinking?” And the worst?  “You’re making us look bad.”  Yikes!  Again, the poor volunteer became nervous and confused.  Their bags ended up all over the place, though one or two actually did land in the box.

Finally, person four entered the room, was told their instructions, and began to throw.  As you can imagine, she missed the first time, but was quickly corrected by the group.  “You’re close, but you need to throw it just a little harder.”  “You’ve almost got it but turn slightly to your right.”  “Great job! You got it right on!”  The volunteer was happy, and she got 75% of her bags in the box.

It was a simple demonstration, but sometimes we all need a reminder to have those constructive conversations.

It proved that providing only positive feedback is just as bad as none at all.  The result is the same.  The employee will produce the same results over and over because they think they’re doing fine.  “They said I’m doing great, so why change?”  Or, “No one told me I was doing anything wrong, so I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”

Interestingly, person three was the second-best performer.  They knew they were doing horribly, so kept changing their approach.  They got it right once or twice but were never told that specifically.  A blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, right? However, even though they may have ended up accomplishing the goal at least part of the time, they were left feeling confused and defeated.

As expected, person four performed light years ahead of the rest of the group.  They were given the confidence to know they were doing well, but also directed on how to get it just right and do even better.

Sure, it’s easy to provide feedback to someone when their job is to throw candy in a box, but the idea is to apply this to a real-life work scenario.  Sometimes it’s not easy to sit down with someone and provide that constructive criticism.  But it’s so valuable if you do.

Maybe you are a seasoned manager.  Maybe you are new to the role like I am.  In either case, this exercise was a good reminder to take a look at yourself and how you tend to provide feedback to your team.  Do you shy away from the harder conversations?  It may not always be fun in the moment to tell someone that they are off track, but so valuable when you do.  Your team will appreciate you so much more as a manager if you do.