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Negative Feedback - 25 May 2010

In a world where the public is bombarded almost non-stop with advertisements, it’s increasingly difficult to get people’s attention. It’s even tougher to do so with high school students who have a higher tendency to tune out. This is especially true when it’s a negative message that needs to be communicated.

But in the UK, there is one public service announcement that’s really cutting through. It warns teenagers of the dangers associated when texting while driving. It’s an extremely confronting ad, and one I don’t recommend if you’re easily upset. If you’d like to see it, click here.


The ad is shown in British schools, and it’s been so successful that now there are other cities and states around the world doing the same thing with the same ad. So the question becomes: what is it about this particular negative message that makes students take notice and alter their behaviour? It's not its shock value, because many shocking ads have failed in the past to change people's attitudes. The answer boils down to two specific areas: (1) It addresses what they value, and (2) it addresses what they interpret.

Here’s what I mean by those points and how they can be used at work to provide negative feedback to employees that makes them listen.

What they value: The ad centres on what the viewers value the most. For some, it could be love, so there are girls talking about dating. For others it could be friendship, so the girls are obviously close, and two of them end up dying. For others it might be image, so the ad has car crash survivors that become horribly disfigured. There are about a dozen more values portrayed in this ad that all serve just one purpose: to grab attention.

When providing employees with negative feedback, get their attention by linking it to what they value. For example, they might be driven by reputation, so highlight how their poor performance affects people’s perception of them. They may be motivated by power, so talk about the impact on their status. They could be turned on by independence, so subtly warn of micromanagement. Determine the value for each employee, and then use it as an anchor.

What they interpret: The ad carefully avoids muddling its message with unnecessary noise that could be misinterpreted. For starters, it's shown at schools rather than TV, so there's less competition with other marketers vying for attention. Also, the ad doesn’t preach. At no stage does it advise teens to stop texting while driving. It lets them figure it out. It doesn’t say that people die. Instead, it shows a child begging, “Mummy, daddy, wake up.”

Likewise, be mindful of stuff that arises during your conversations that might mess up the negative feedback you’re conveying. For example, don’t use judgement words, which are any adjectives like ‘lazy’, ‘careless’, ‘disinterested’, and so on. It’s more effective to focus only on the specific behaviour that needs rectifying. Judgement words trigger people to become defensive immediately, whereas sticking to concrete actions are harder to dispute.

Other areas that could disrupt an accurate interpretation of your message include:

- your body language (do you look like you want them to succeed, or not?)
- your communication method (is it mirroring their preferred learning style, or yours?)
- the location (is it in a neutral and comfortable place, or your office?).

Negative feedback doesn’t have to end in a crash.


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