Regardless of how much they want to improve, no employee likes receiving criticism from their boss. A study in the Journal of Personnel Psychology discovered that nobody — even people who are motivated to learn — likes negative performance reviews.

As part of the study, researchers classified employees according to three categories based on their goal orientations:

  • Learning goal-oriented: These are employees who like to learn for the sake of learning. They often pursue challenges despite setbacks.
  • Performance-prove goal-oriented: These employees want to prove that they have competence to perform a job.
  • Performance-avoid goal-oriented: These are employees who want to avoid looking foolish.

Satoris Culbertson, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of management at Kansas State Univ., said she was surprised to find learning goal-oriented employees weren't satisfied with an appraisal in which they received negative feedback.

“Surprisingly, we found that learning-oriented people were just as dissatisfied with an appraisal that had negative feedback as the performance-oriented people were,” Culbertson said. “Nobody likes to get negative feedback — even those individuals who aren't trying to prove anything to others, but instead are just trying to learn as much as possible.”

Since performance appraisals can affect motivation, commitment and performance, Culbertson said managers must be careful when giving feedback to employees.

“It is not so much that the performance review needs to be abolished, but we need to fix what is broken,” she said. “Instead of limiting ourselves to formal performance appraisals conducted once or twice a year, we need to think about performance management as a system that is linked with the strategy of the entire organization.”

Based on the research, Culbertson has several suggestions to help managers construct better performance evaluations:

  • Focus on constructive feedback instead of negative feedback: While negative feedback focuses on what an employee is doing wrong, constructive feedback brings in elements for improvement. “Negative feedback is not the same as constructive feedback," Culbertson said. "We should be careful that negative feedback is provided in a way that is more constructive because it can help people try to improve.”

  • Be careful with number-based performance reviews: People view numbers differently, Culbertson said. For example, on an evaluation with a 1-to-5 scale, a manager might give an employee a 4 and see this as positive feedback, but an employee might see this as negative if he or she is striving for a 5. “This is where our words are really powerful,” Culbertson said. “We want to make sure we are conveying to employees whether we are giving a good evaluation or describing something that needs to improve.”

  • Avoid the “sandwich” approach: This occurs when managers provide positive feedback, then give negative feedback and finish with positive feedback. “Sometimes the sandwich approach comes across as dishonest or not something that people will buy,” Culbertson said.

The study, co-authored by Eastern Kentucky Univ.’s Jaime Henning and Texas A&M University's Stephanie Payne, was based on surveys of more than 200 staffers who had just completed performance reviews at a large southern university.