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How a referee reacts to negative feedback


Referees have been on my mind a lot recently. At a recent football (soccer) game the West Bromwich Albion fans (for those overseas think of a team perenially struggling to make it into the big time) took considerable offence at how the referree – Rob Styles – handled the game against Manchester United. Ignoring the fact that the fans were right (yes, I’m biased) what was interesting was the referee’s response.

The feedback he received was loud, personal, direct and no doubt intimidating. By the end it was sarcastic and very unpleasant. I was not partaking in this feedback I should probably add – well not most of it. Styles’ response appeared to become increasingly beligerant – he dug his heels in, sending a West Brom player off (later rescinded on appeal), booking players for minor indiscretions. He appeared determined to prove he was not going to be intimidated.

I recently heard another referee – Graham Poll – speaking on radio. He said that if he got a decision wrong at a large stadium and the crowd starting to turn against him he found it difficult to not let it affect his decision making. Often, he said, he would give a close decision back in favour of the upset team which would of course be derided and only make matters worse. This was quite an admission of a World Cup referee.

Although this is an extreme example, it is interesting to see how both referees reacted to negative feedback. Neither one improved in the moment (they may later have reflected on the decisions, but we can be sure that the feedback didn’t help with that) and instead the intense negative feedback changed their behaviour for the worse.

Some – not all – managers create this problem by giving a stream of negative feedback whether as part of a formal performance review process or through day-to-day performance appraisal. A stream of negative feedback only has the recipient desparately trying to avoid more of that feedback or determined not to bend to the will of it. Constructive feedback – or even better a building on the good parts of someone’s performance offers a much better route to improvement.

I understand that all referees are subject to a referee’s assessor after the game. I hope the assessor at the West Brom game had great coaching skills. It was some of the most intense "360 feedback" I had seen at a game in a long time. Drawing out the learning could have been difficult.

Brendan Walsh

2 Responses

  1. Balance of feedback
    Hi Jackie,

    I really like your point about the lack of degree of criticism. Kids are brilliant at turning a deaf ear and employees (and we’ve all been one!) are the same. I’m tending more and more to believe that positive feedback has to be the majority of feedback – encouraging, giving people a platform to build skills from. Handling poor performance is clearly critical but it should not be the angle that you approach appraisal from.
    I’ve concluded that referees are a law unto themselves.


  2. Feedback for learning
    I remember watching one of those nanny TV shows. The parent shouted at the kids about everything they did. The kids had no sense of degree – whether something was a bit wrong or very wrong – so they just got worse and worse.

    Now I am not suggesting that managers should treat their employees as children – images of the “naughty step” spring to mind. And I can’t see how this would work for referees who had to do what they do in the moment. But I do believe that managers who work with their employees to point out errors, work on ways to improve – and crucially give praise and encouragement where due – stand a better chance of getting better performance.

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