The outcomes of an event, performance, or project can have a profound impact on how receptive people are to listen to, and act on, feedback.
Criticism that follows a successful performance is accepted very differently than feedback offered after a sub-par performance. In other words, winners and losers react to feedback in vastly different ways.
As a rule, people don’t react negatively to criticism that follows a success or victory. Instead, the euphoria of success strips away any sensitivity they would normally experience. After a successful outcome, people hear feedback more as a suggestion for improvement than as a piercing arrow aimed at their shortcomings. It is even common for high performers to dig in and explore the criticism, searching for ways to give them an edge in the future.
In contrast, after an inferior outcome or performance, people are acutely sensitive to even the slightest remarks, preferring to interpret just about any criticism as salt thrown on a wound. They are more apt to reject or react to feedback when in this heightened sense of disappointment.
They look to leaders for encouragement, not feedback, when they have experienced a defeat or failure. In their minds, this is not the time to pile on, but an excellent moment to console and support.
The irony is that leaders are more likely to want to give feedback immediately after a weak performance. This makes rational sense. To their way of thinking, immediately after a weak showing is the ideal time to address or fix whatever issues contributed to the inferior outcome. What better time to consider a pathway toward improvement while the performance is still fresh?
By doing so, however, leaders unintentionally walk right into the lion’s den, setting off a firestorm of protest and reaction in the process. The saying timing is everything applies doubly to feedback.
Because people are most open to feedback after success, leaders need to take advantage of the opportunity and offer observations that imprint what went right and why. People internalize even the smallest suggestions and act on them when success is the context.
Following defeat or substandard performance, leaders would do best to focus on what went well and give others time to recover from disappointment. Avoiding criticism while the failure is still raw is essential. A few hours or a day later is plenty of time for everyone to gain some distance and begin the process of improving on a weak performance by dissecting what went south and why. Good leaders remember that feedback is best when others are primed and ready to hear it, otherwise it just becomes noise.