Staff Development

Effective performance management requires knowing how to give positive feedback

December 17, 2019 12:08 am
  • Positive feedback is the most underutilized “natural resource” in the workplace.
  • Leaders who have difficulty providing feedback may need to dispense with several long-held assumptions, including the notion that high-performing employees already know they’re good and don’t need to be told.
  • Positive feedback can take several forms, including reinforcement, encouragement, support and praise.
  • When positive feedback takes the form of praise, it should be sincere, timely and specific.

Positive feedback is a powerful tool for performance management — when done right. Doing it right requires understanding what effective feedback is. Here’s my definition:

Feedback is information with intent to influence.

Those three “i” words are essential.

Information: Simply saying “good job” may be better than nothing, but it’s devoid of detail. What behavior, what action, what decision, what growth was good? What made it good, and why does it matter? The more information-rich the feedback is, the more likely it is to be meaningful to the recipient and to affect future performance.

Intent: Feedback should be an intentional act, not off-handed or the result of serendipity. Leaders should see it as a strategic skill to master and a commitment to their team members. A leader who cares about the quality of a team’s performance fuels that performance with a steady, and varied, diet of feedback.

Influence: What can feedback influence? When I ask that question of managers in workshops, some of the top responses I get are quality, behavior, attitude, creativity, team building, risk taking, productivity, morale, engagement and retention.

If I told you I’m selling a product and I guarantee it will influence any or all those things, I suspect you’d buy it. Yet feedback costs you nothing. It’s the most underutilized “natural resource” in the workplace.

You just have to make it a priority and practice it faithfully.

Barriers to offering effective feedback

As I hear constantly from teams — and even from managers who crave better feedback from their own leaders — there’s a gap between the caliber of feedback that employees want and what they’re getting.

Leaders may have to rid themselves of some long-held assumptions that get in the way of providing positive feedback.

Good people know they’re good. They don’t need me to tell them. Even superstars can experience self-doubt and impostor syndrome. A good word from a respected leader dispels those worries.

I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do. People shouldn’t have to do extraordinary things to earn positive feedback. Acknowledging employees for reliability, collaboration, being the calm in the storm or having a “can-do” attitude extols attributes we too often take for granted — until we hire someone who lacks them.

I didn’t get applause from my bosses, and I did just fine. If your approach to feedback is based on what worked for you as an employee, you are assuming that everyone is just like you. They aren’t.

Your youngest employees, for example, have grown up in a digital world of free-flowing feedback. Then they come to work, where they get annual reviews — and perhaps a boss who thinks they’re being needy and entitled if they want something more regular so they can act on it.

Keeping people guessing keeps them on their toes. Let’s just bury this idea. Withholding positive feedback to create competition or anxiety is simply cruel. People don’t do their best work under needless stress. Managers who think fear is motivator usually motivate people to find a better boss.

I’m too busy. Improving the positive feedback you dispense doesn’t have to add hours to your day or days to your week. Just focus on upgrading the quality of what you currently provide.

5 positive-feedback tools to use

That upgrade starts when you set a goal of embedding feedback into your everyday interactions with people. Look at each connection as a chance to share information with intent to influence. Never waste an opportunity to use one of the following positive-feedback tools.

1. Keeping someone in the loop. Feedback can be as simple as making sure to inform a team member about something that matters to him or her. For example: “Hey, just wanted to let you know we got the okay for the new software. I wanted to tell you right away because I know you really were hoping for it.”

2. Reinforcement. You might say, “I see what you’re doing, keep it up.” This tool is best used when you’ve asked someone to change a behavior or learn a new skill. When you see them taking those first steps, let them know they’re on the right track. They may not be perfect, and you’re not saying that. You’re simply letting them know their efforts are seen and approved. By doing that, you ensure they don’t revert to the status quo.

3. Appreciation. Thanking people sincerely, with details about what you value, can make someone’s day. Better yet, put it in writing. Again, it need not be about extraordinary performance, but simply about something that really matters to you and to the other person.

4. Encouragement. When people are tired, fearful or frustrated, your words of support can keep them going. If you’ve ever taken part in a run, you know that the organizers strategically place music, signs and clapping crowds along the route. That targeted encouragement gives runners the boost they need just when they need it. You can do that, too.

5. Full-blown praise. Praise is effective when it comes from a respected source (that’s you) and is sincere, timely and specific.

Let me underscore the importance of that last word: specific. If you remember only one thing from this column, let it be this:

Your specificity proves your sincerity.

The more detail you provide, the more the listener knows you aren’t making up the feedback or saying it lightly. You know precisely what worked well. And when you describe it in detail, the recipient knows exactly what to do again in the future.

One effective way to praise is to turn the recipient into your teacher: “In the meeting today, I watched you help three people find common ground about a contentious issue. You heard everyone out but didn’t let anyone dominate or drag out the meeting. What’s your secret?”

Making the feedback process less burdensome

It may sound daunting to think about the various types of feedback, to gather details and be ready to turn a conversation at the coffee machine into a feedback moment. So, enlist help.

If you have deputies, make feedback their responsibility, too. Encourage your highest performers to be generous with positive feedback to colleagues. Ask your team to alert you to small wins, not just big victories. You can’t be everywhere and see everything, so you need to make clear that you want a steady pipeline of stories about what’s going right and who deserves acknowledgement.

The next thing you know, you’re not just upgrading the quality of your own communication with employees. You’re building a culture of feedback.


Note: This column was the first of a two-part look at performance management strategies for leaders. In the second part, Jill examined how to have difficult conversations with employees who are performing below expectations.


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