Constructive feedback is helpful to the person it’s given to. It can be positive feedback (e.g., “You’re doing a great job”) or negative feedback (e.g., “Here’s how you can do a better job…”).
In contrast, weaponized feedback is harmful to the person it’s given to, and it can be used to exploit them. Worse, weaponized feedback is often disguised as being “well-intentioned”, so it can be difficult to recognize.
Consider the following example:
A new employee is doing an exceptionally good job by taking initiative, doing more than what’s expected of her, and helping coworkers in other departments. However, the employee’s manager, who hasn’t been doing well on the job, fears he will soon be replaced by the high-performing employee. So, the manager gives the employee negative feedback about her being “too assertive”, “setting goals too high”, and “overstepping boundaries.”
While the manager may say the feedback is intended to be helpful, it isn’t actually rooted in helping the employee. Rather, the feedback stems from the manager’s fear of losing his job, and is actually intended to slow the employee’s career advancement.
In addition, the manager doesn’t even realize he’s weaponizing feedback for his own gain! Because his perceptions are distorted by fear, he inadvertently misperceives the employee to be problematic and deserving of the feedback.
So how can you recognize when feedback has been weaponized? Well, as the example above illustrates, certain situations can lead to weaponized feedback, and so it’s important to be on the lookout for them.
Here are four “watch-out” situations that can lead to weaponized feedback:
Competition – When employees compete for things like promotions, pay raises, or even praise from their managers, weaponized feedback can proliferate. Just like the example about the low-performing manager being concerned about losing his job to the high-performing employee, weaponized feedback can be used to gain an unfair advantage in a competitive situation.
Social Cliques – Social cliques within companies tend to create an “us versus them” mentality. In other words, if you’re not an accepted member of the group, you’re misperceived as an outside threat. Similarly, some social cliques breed gossip and even coordinated efforts to undermine people outside of the group (e.g., smear campaigns). If negative feedback stems from members of a social clique and targets a person outside of the group, it’s wise to consider if the feedback has been weaponized.
Envy or Jealousy – Instances where one employee wants what another has can also lead to weaponized feedback. A nice office, higher pay, a reserved parking spot, etc., can cause others to become envious, and in turn, lead them to give weaponized feedback to the person who has what they want.
Mistakes or Failures – Situations in which mistakes or failures happen can lead to finger-pointing and blame (e.g., a lost customer, botched product launch, etc.). Worse, that blame often takes the form of weaponized feedback given to people associated with the failure, regardless of whether something they did actually caused the mistake. With that in mind, it’s especially important to consider the validity of negative feedback associated with a mistake or failure, as many people assume negative feedback to be true when it’s connected to a negative outcome.
In sum, to recognize weaponized feedback, it’s important to examine if the feedback is actually helpful to the person receiving it, and consider the situation from which feedback stems.
From what I’ve observed as a Business Psychologist, weaponized feedback is a widespread problem in the workplace. For more information, please email me, Dr. Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR at firstname.lastname@example.org