Making the most of positive feedback

Let’s face it.  It’s always good to get some positive feedback; and telling others how well they’ve done isn’t exactly a chore.  Add to that the fact that there’s plenty of evidence showing the benefits of giving and receiving positive feedback and you would expect our working days to be full of meetings where we share what’s going well.

But that isn’t the reality for most of us.  In fact, despite the growing body of research showing that we spend far too much time focusing on the negatives, most of us still prioritise dealing with mistakes over building on what is working.  Why is that?  It’s easy to blame our inbuilt negativity bias and perhaps that is what sits behind our reticence.  It’s almost as though positive feedback is seen as the frivolous icing on the cake, rather than a serious contributor to enhancing success.  Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that, for many of us, our experience of receiving positive feedback has been limited to bland, trivial comments like ‘great job, well done’.  Or maybe we associate positive feedback with the ‘feedback sandwich’ a technique that sits uncomfortably with many of us.  Or is it that we just don’t know how to give positive feedback?  After all, there is certainly a skill to it, and it’s not something that is often taught.

Whatever the reason, many of us would benefit from both giving and receiving positive feedback more often.  But that feedback should be valuable and useful; so how do we do that?

Make it authentic – A key reason people dislike the positive-negative-positive feedback sandwich is it feels disingenuous; like we’re using the positive to cushion the impact of the negative, rather than giving positive feedback because we mean it!  Any feedback you give will have much greater impact on the receiver if it is genuine.  For most of us, to be able to give more good quality positive feedback we need to pay more attention to people’s strengths.  Try to spend more time concentrating on noticing what people are doing well. 

Make it specific and detailed – If you want the feedback you give to make a difference to someone’s future performance then you need to make it clear exactly what it was you appreciated about what they did.  ‘Great job, well done’ is nice to hear but is pretty useless developmental feedback! Make sure you back up any generic compliment by giving detailed, specific comments. That way the person knows what to do again next time.

Share the impact – It’s not just about explaining what the person did so well, it’s also about why and how it made a difference.  There is lots of wisdom and research showing the importance of people feeling connected to the bigger picture, both in terms of the impact it has on their performance and engagement levels.  Explaining to people how their actions had a positive impact will make them feel good and will help them to understand how to keep having that impact.

Keep it separate – Given that we do have an inbuilt negativity bias, it’s often best to separate out the positive and negative feedback altogether.  Don’t try to give both in the same sitting unless you really have to.  Giving even a hint of the things you didn’t like is likely to strongly sway the feedback message the person takes away.  For someone to really benefit from the impact of strengths-based feedback it’s much better if they can wholly focus on strengths for a while.  I’m not saying the negative messages shouldn’t be given or that they aren’t important – just that they should be given separately. 

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