A few weeks ago, we discussed the value of specific, positive feedback and how it can make a huge difference in employee morale and performance. When we explain exactly what they’re doing right and why it benefits the company, we help the people we supervise to grow and excel. This type of feedback means pushing beyond “good job,” pat-on-the-back praise and digging into the details. Since the whole point of positive feedback is to reinforce valuable behaviors, we need to be clear about what those “do more of this” behaviors look like.
The science of positive reinforcement
You will often hear feedback called “praise” to put a positive spin on it, yet I believe we should look at feedback as both positive and constructive without labeling it differently. Regardless of whether you call it praise or feedback, this type of verbal input should be given frequently and in great detail so people always know where they stand.
Despite the fact that employees are hungry for positive feedback and multiple studies support its vital importance to growth, leaders tend to avoid doling it out.
In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers outlined the risks of minimal feedback saying, “When people don’t receive feedback, they are less likely to know their worth in negotiations. Moreover, people who receive little feedback are ill-equipped to assess their strengths, shore up their weaknesses, and judge their prospects for success and are therefore less able to build the confidence they need to proactively seek promotions or make risky decisions.”
Leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman surveyed nearly 8,000 people, and found that 37% of them avoided giving positive feedback. This despite the fact that employees see managers as “more effective” when they give praise. Managers themselves frequently believe that corrective feedback is more important, and that giving it makes them better, stronger supervisors.
Our takeaway: Learning to give detailed, meaningful positive feedback will help us be better leaders, and help our employees feel valued and improve performance. Wins all around, right? So let’s talk about HOW to present affirming feedback the right way.
Simple steps for giving positive feedback beyond, “Good job”
Step 1: Set the time. For praise to feel genuine and have a lasting impact, it needs to be delivered in a timely manner. Schedule a discussion with the employee within a reasonable period of the “event” or utilize prearranged 1:1 time to offer your input.
Step 2: Set the stage. Open the conversation with a statement that indicates the feedback you have is positive and important, and that what you’re going to discuss is intended to acknowledge something that you’ve observed them doing well.
Step 3: Set the scene. Offer up your feedback with specific instances so that the listener can visualize what you are describing. Use words that describe what you observed, felt, and heard that made you realize this was something valuable and extraordinary. Make it clear this is a “do more of that” type of behavior.
Step 4: Invite them into the conversation. As a leader, be mindful of the fact that the person you’re addressing might not be comfortable with hearing nice things about their work. Or they might just be caught off guard, especially if positive feedback isn’t a cultural norm within your company. If this happens, it’s a great coaching opportunity. Let them know that it’s totally fine to feel proud of this feedback and give them permission to accept that they can be rewarded and acknowledged for a job well done. For many, giving and receiving positive feedback may be difficult based on how we were raised. That said, these are moments for growing as leaders and humans. Lean in to the discomfort on either side and celebrate the “do more of that” moments.
Step 5: Give encouragement and thanks. If possible, make the relaying of feedback the only topic for your discussion. If it needs to be included in a multiple-point meeting, offer the feedback first and create clear delineation between topics. Either way, close out the conversation with relevant next steps and express your appreciation for the time you’ve shared.
Remember to avoid sandwiching negative feedback or other agenda items between detailed positive feedback. If the constructive feedback is something that needs to be heard loud and clear, pairing it with positive input may diminish its impact. And regardless, giving both at once creates mixed messages.
EXAMPLE: Relating positive feedback the right way
Wondering what a conversation like this might sound like? Let’s walk through an example together:
Step 1: Time with “Pat” is set.
Step 2: “Pat, I wanted to take a moment to give you feedback on how you handled that client meeting on Monday.”
Step 3: “I was impressed with your ability to lean in to their concerns, maintain composure, and really get curious when they expressed their frustrations. You have a gift for high-emotion situations and I wanted you to know that I appreciate how you showed up.”
Step 4: “Are you aware of your ability to engage in that way so naturally?”
Step 5: “I want to encourage you to continue modeling this exemplary behavior whenever you can. Thank you again for engaging with our client with such grace and professionalism.”
One last reminder: Even if your own supervisors and leaders have relied solely on constructive feedback and never offered you a word of praise, you don’t need to follow suit. Focusing on correcting problem behaviors doesn’t make you a stronger, tougher manager; it simply makes it harder for your employees to trust you. Learning to convey positive feedback is a fantastic way to bolster employee performance, relationships, and loyalty.