Thumbs-Up and Thumbs-Down

Thumbs-Up and Thumbs-Down by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Author.

I’ve been using iHeart Radio lately. It is a great way to listen to my favorite Christian bands without interruptions from gabby DJs, commercials, or weather and traffic reports. (I live in Minnesota. I don’t need a weatherman to tell me it’s nasty outside six months at a time. My office is in the home, so the only traffic I encounter is between the kitchen, office, and bathroom.) iHeart Radio has an intriguing feature: the ability to give individual songs a “thumbs-up” or a “thumbs-down.” If I hear a song I like, the thumbs-up button tells the software to find and play more music similar to that song. Conversely, if I hear a song I don’t like, the thumbs-down button stops the playback and goes on to the next song. I’ll never hear that song again.

I noticed something though. I noticed that I am far more likely to click the thumbs-down button, providing negative feedback, than I am to click the thumbs-up button. When a song that I don’t like plays I do something about it (I click the button and stop it). When a song that I enjoy plays I do nothing. As I realized that, I also realized that’s what I, and probably you, tend to do in the rest of life.

At a restaurant, when your food is undercooked, you are likely to ask that it be fixed (thus also providing negative feedback). How often do you let the chef know the food was cooked just right? When you have a problem with a medical bill, you call the clinic’s billing office to get it straightened out. How often do you call them to tell them the bill was accurate? When you buy product that turns out to be defective, you engage the store’s customer service team to replace the product. How often do you call a store back to say that everything you bought yesterday is in good condition?

We don’t normally provide positive feedback in those scenarios because when things work right, we’re merely getting what we asked for, and what was promised to us in the first place. (Although, positive feedback does come in the form of repeat business.) Each of those situations also involves a business transaction with people that we usually do not know personally. As a result we feel less obligated to affirm them.

But what about people we work and live with?

Most of us don’t feel safe enough to give a boss negative feedback, so I’m not going to touch that one. The same goes for peer-level colleagues. These dynamics are very complex. Perhaps I’ll explore that subject in the future. Subordinates, though, are a different story. Most of us find it very easy to identify what subordinates are doing wrong, but we are not very skilled at effectively calling this to attention and generating positive change. We tend to develop passive forms of negative feedback, which are never effective.

On the other hand, when subordinates do something right, we may or may not offer praise. Once again, most of us are not skilled at identifying what they did right and helping that individual further develop that for future positive results. In summary, our “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” systems at work don’t work very well.

For most of us, things get even messier at home. At home, we tend to directly call out the negative and even ignore the positive. I am honestly not sure why we do this. I heard one person posit that it is because we know we’re “stuck” with each other and that it almost doesn’t matter how negative our feedback is, we’re not going to quit the family (like we would a job) and go find a new family. Goodness! I hope that’s not what really goes on in our minds. If it is, it is defective thinking and might even be abusive relationally.

The truth, though, is that most of us give far more thumbs-down than thumbs-up feedback at home. It is a perplexing and significant problem. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a fancy solution to share. Writing about it in this blog helps me to think carefully and seriously about my own issues here. This problem hits home for me in each of my significant roles.

As a consultant, I need to offer specific and meaningful praise to my clients on a more regular basis. As a university instructor, I need to regularly call out what my students do right and tell them why it is good. Most importantly, as a husband I need to frequently let my wife know how she blesses me and our kids. Equally important, as a father I need to daily tell my kids about all the things they do right and why they are important.

I’d really like to hear from you about your struggles and victories in this area. Where do you find yourself giving the most negative feedback and why? Is this a problem? How? Have you found effective ways to deal with this? If you’d like to keep our dialogue private, send me an email.

2 thoughts on “Thumbs-Up and Thumbs-Down

  1. I just received a note from one of my readers who shared some personal comments about positive and negative feedback at home. I’m not going to share the details of those comments, but this reader had a great insight that I want to pass on:

    More than finding things to praise in others, we need to show that we value others. We can do so by asking questions like “How is your day going?” and “You were concerned about ‘X’. How is that going? Can I help?” and “I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘Y’. Can I get your thoughts on that?” Questions like this show we value who they are and how they see things.

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