We tend to associate feedback with things going wrong. Just hearing the words “Can I give you some feedback?” can put us on edge. As Ken Nowak commented in his recent post, when we experience being evaluated, criticised, or judged, it triggers a stress response. It activates the part of the brain that launches the fight or flight response.
We have come to assume that “feedback” means bad news. In a professional setting, most of us aren’t taught to recognise what is going well. Instead, we are taught to identify what is going wrong so that we can attempt to fix it. So it’s natural that we can become a bit defensive, as we all want to know that we are valued, are recognised, and that people see us in a positive light.
But feedback can do those things too: make us feel valued, recognised, and satisfied that our colleagues see us positively. We just don’t give enough positive feedback. If we did, would hearing that one word still trigger the fight or flight response?
Is positive feedback really that important to people?
Evidence suggests that people are actually more keen to receive constructive rather than positive feedback. A study by Harvard Business Review found that 57% of people would prefer constructive feedback to positive praise or recognition. We all recognise that constructive feedback gives us an opportunity to learn and grow.
But, this doesn’t mean we don’t need positive feedback at all. In fact, it can be extremely powerful. It helps people feel confident, which helps them to do a better job. It makes them feel appreciated, which in turns make them more motivated and engaged. It shows them that they are supported, and this leads to better working relationships and greater retention. Finally, it's a lot easier for people to accept criticism when things do go wrong if they are also used to hearing positive things.
So how can we encourage people to give more positive feedback?
Foster a culture where people offer praise freely
It’s important for people to be able to give each other positive feedback. It facilitates a healthier, more supportive, more cohesive team.
The good news, is we are far more comfortable giving positive feedback than we are negative, or constructive, feedback.
And unlike negative feedback, which should be delivered one-to-one in private, positive feedback can be given in front of others. It can be helpful for others to know what the desired behaviour is, and small acts like this can increase motivation and morale. Moreover, if people witness others being given praise and recognition, they will be encouraged to do it themselves.
The tricky thing is that we often aren’t very good at accepting praise - though that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. We can have a tendency to deflect compliments, meeting them with a default response of, “Oh, it was nothing.” But if we are continually being told we are good at something, it’s important we take note. And like we should when receiving negative feedback, we should ask follow up questions. Perhaps there are ways we could sharpen that skill even more. Or maybe it could be used in other situations too.
It’s not just about saying “good job”
Giving positive feedback doesn’t mean just saying “good job” - which can sometimes come across as vague or insincere. Rather, it’s better to adopt the what/why approach.
The what/why approach involves telling the person what it was about their behaviour or action that impressed you, and why what they did was effective. This approach enables you to give really direct and to the point feedback - so that the individual knows exactly what is expected of them.
Positive feedback helps motivation, boosts confidence, and shows people you value them. It helps people to understand and develop their skills. And all this has a positive impact on individual, team, and organisational performance. As a manager, giving positive feedback should be a simple part of your practice. But as an organisation, we should be encouraging everyone to be more open with each other in giving praise, recognition, and encouragement.