Over the past few months I’ve read two interesting posts (“Mean and Regressive” – Cooked Timber, 28 Sep 2010; and “Why Does Criticism Seem More Effective Than Praise?”, by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback, HarvardBusiness.Org) dealing with the “Regression Towards The Mean” phenomena.

The gist of these posts is that contrary to intuition it is not unusual to observe cases where team members’ performance is negatively affected after receiving a praise and conversely (now inline with intuition), performance is improved after receiving a good dose of criticism.

So what is actually at play here?

It is easier to understand (intuitively) why following a good session of positive criticism one would seem to try harder, with the result being an improved future performance.

How would we explain then the not un-common cases where a decline in performance is observed after receiving a good praise?

This is where the concept of Regression Towards the Mean comes in handy. None of us, including you, perform at a steady rate. Although we tend to operate at performance levels around a certain average, each performance instance is likely to be in areas around that mean performance, some of which denote better than average performance, and some denote worse than average performance.

With such normal variation in performance it is easy to understand that there is a good chance that following a less than complimentary performance we will bounce back and exhibit a better than average performance. If our manager is providing us with a criticism just after we’ve hit a performance ‘low’ there is a relatively good chance that our next observed performance will be better with or without any external feedback.


As a rational observer of the above, one is most likely to conclude that the best managerial action to take is to simply criticise bad performers as this is more likely to result in increased performance. Clearly there is no point in praising the better performers as this will only be followed by a reduced performance.

In their post, Linda Hill and Ken Lineback suggest that there is ample evidence to suggest that positive reinforcement will produce better results than a relentless focus on faults. Consequently one should be as quick to give praise as one is to give criticism. This is almost obvious and can be demonstrated in the following way. when one is subject to positive feedback, and provided one has the capabilities required, there will be over-time a movement of the mean performance resulting from small incremental improvements in performance. This result in the following outcome:


While this is applicable at the individual level, a similar outcome is likely to be exhibited at the group / team level as well. As individuals performance improves incrementally over time, so will the team’s performance is likely to improve over time as well. This could be illustrated in the following way:


So it is quite simple really. Positive or otherwise constructive feedback is likely to result in a productivity growth not just for the individuals concern but also to the team as a whole.

Think about it!

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