Don’t Underestimate the Power of Positive Feedback

Well done red 3d realistic paper speech bubble isolated on whiteHave you ever suggested that an employee improve only to have them reply, “Why are you always criticizing me? Don’t you ever have anything good to say?”

If this sounds familiar then I’d suggest that you might be getting some difficult feedback in return. Your employee might be trying to say that you have the wrong ratio of positive to negative interactions with them.

What’s your feedback ratio?

Marriage expert, John Gottman, suggests that in the healthiest relationships a ratio of five positive to one negative interactions is best.

I have also found a 5:1 ratio to be just right in the workplace. You might be thinking, “Why should I have to tell people what they’re doing right?” Or you may not be the kind of person who requires frequent praise from your superiors. But, many people do need a kind word of acknowledgement from time to time to be able to maintain their stamina and commitment to their work. This doesn’t have to be a big splashy show of appreciation and actually smaller, more frequent appreciation is even more effective.

Feedback is Different from Praise

Giving positive feedback does not mean that we constantly lavish people with praise. Overly frequent praise can lose its impact. This reminds me of the classic Seinfeld episode when a doctor seemingly compliments Elaine’s appearance by calling her “breathtaking” and later uses the same adjective to describe an “ugly baby.” For Elaine, hearing that a handsome doctor thought she was breathtaking lost its impact when it was uttered with abandon.

Five Ingredients of Positive Feedback

In Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, the author writes that “Praise isn’t only about approval it’s more about letting people know how they’re doing with information they can use to continue doing well.” So, whether you thank someone in person, via email, or a written note here are five simple ingredients to consider.

  1. Make it genuine. People can spot insincerity a mile a way.
  2. Give it privately. Deliver personal appreciation privately and group appreciation publicly.
  3. Be specific. Instead of saying “You really wowed that client,” it’s more meaningful to say, “You made a personal connection with that client by remembering to ask about his mother’s health. That’s sure to lead to loyalty.”
  4. Separate positive feedback from confrontation. When we use the old sandwich method of telling them something positive then slipping in something critical, people only hear the negative part. So, it’s best to deliver positive feedback as a separate conversation.
  5. Focus on process not just outcomes. Instead of saying, “Way to go for making that sale,” it’s better to say, “Way to go for hanging in there and persevering.”

Create a Positive Feedback Habit

If this amount and type of positive feedback is new to you it might take a concerted effort to change. Find a way to make this habitual so it will eventually become an automatic and integral part of the way you lead. Here are some ideas:

  • Set aside the same time each day or week for writing feedback notes.
  • Select one day of the week when you offer positive feedback in person to your team.
  • Remind yourself to find the good.
  • Put reminders on your phone or calendar.

If you’ve ever watched Late Night with Jimmy Fallon you’ve seen the “Thank you notes” segment, where Fallon jots his sometimes hilarious thank you notes to music. Maybe putting on a few tunes might help you get the job done too.

An unexpected “thank you” is also always appreciated. Many years ago I hosted a colleague’s farewell party in my home. About a month after the party I was pulling a box of cereal off the shelf when out slid a blue card (the signature, “You’re a Winner” card of one of my colleagues) with a hand written note of thanks. This happened almost twenty years ago. The fact that I remember it so vividly is a testimony to its impact.

Leave it to Mother Theresa to express the power of positive feedback beautifully when she said:

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.”

And Mark Twain said it equally well with his special brand of humor:

“I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

So, I’d say that before we deliver critical feedback we should ask ourselves, “When was the last time I told my employee something positive?” What would you say?


9 thoughts on “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Positive Feedback

    • Thanks, Loraine. So glad this was helpful. I need regular reminders too. When I was a school principal and was observing a lesson I would write the word, “compliments” at the top of the page. It served as a reminder to notice what the teacher was doing well so I could tell her. After awhile it became a habit to notice the good. Maybe that will happen for you too.

  1. Great tips! I had always heard about the sandwich – something positive between a criticism. 5:1 is a reach at times (especially when grading papers) but I certainly support the intention here. Great reminders.

    • Thanks, Liz. Sometimes it can be challenging to find those five positive comments. I didn’t mean to say that they would all show up on one paper. But, a few would do wonders. All I remember from my high school English classes is red marks indicating I had run-on sentences on every page. I don’t recall even one positive comment. Perhaps if I knew even a few small things that I was doing well I could have been able to do more of that. I’m sure your students are getting both kinds of feedback from you!

  2. This is great advice. I used to adhere to the sandwhich method. However, I soon found that it doesn’t work as well as I would hope. It especially doesn’t work well with husbands. LOL

    I’m also a big fan of sending thank you notes. I aim to send at least two handwritten thank you notes a week.

  3. Pingback: How do you Lead? | Jacqui Senn

  4. Pingback: Top Three Pitfalls When Leading Virtual Employees | Less Stress Business

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