The Power of Positive Feedback

This morning my phone rang on the way in to the office. It was my wife. Her first words made my heart sink. “I just got a call from Abby’s Principal.” Instantly I assumed the worst – either my daughter is hurt or in trouble. Parents rarely get good news from the school principal.

But it was good news. A new student had transferred in and Abby had taken it upon herself to befriend her and make her feel welcome – showing her around and introducing her to a circle of friends. The new student’s first few days of school, understandably full of anxiety, had been made wonderful. The parents couldn’t say enough about how grateful they were and the principal wanted us to know.

Obviously I’m proud. As I hung up the phone, I pictured the scene that will likely take place as my wife tells Abby what her principal had to say. I can already see the smile on her face and the pep in her step that she always gets when she receives a pat on the back. And her behavior, which isn’t bad to begin with, will ratchet up a few notches for several days.

Come to think of it, we’re all like Abby. We all like to hear good news, especially when it’s about us. Receiving positive feedback for something you’ve done can turn an average afternoon into a great one. I know that a single positive word regarding one of my projects can significantly affect my mood long after the event has passed.

From a leadership perspective, I’ve noticed three key benefits from the positive feedback I give to members of my team.

1. Morale improves. Something magical happens to a person’s attitude when you pay them a compliment. It’s amazing how many times I’ve given someone a bit of positive feedback only to have them say “Wow. You just made my day.” For some reason, our human tendency is to focus on the negative aspects of work. Telling someone “thank you” followed by a sincere explanation of your gratitude, is often enough to break the cycle of negative thought.

I believe that most people genuinely want to produce good work. The problem is, they never get any feedback to indicate their work is, indeed, good. They hear about what’s wrong, missing or late. As a result, the average employee focuses on staying out of trouble (a negative outlook) rather than on producing good (or even great) work.

2. People reciprocate. Any time I give my daughter some positive feedback, I get some in return. If I thank her for cleaning her room and brag about how great it looks, she thanks me for helping her with her homework. In addition, I’ve noticed that positive feedback I give to one of my children results in positive feedback they give to someone else. So not only do I get to enjoy the boost from reciprocal back-patting, the rest of the family does too.

This phenomenon also plays out at the office. Recognizing one team member’s contribution to a project almost always results in their recognition of someone else’s effort. From the outside it must look like a mini love-fest with everyone thanking and congratulating each other on a job well done. But the psychological impact of just a little positive reinforcement is often enough to lift the whole team. It’s like a wildfire – light a match and pretty soon the place is burning with pride.

3. Team productivity goes up. Long ago I realized the potential of positive feedback to produce better work from an individual. Recognize someone’s effort toward a successful project ”A” and watch how much better project “B” turns out. It’s like a little productivity switch gets pushed into overdrive. I’ve even noticed this effect on my own psyche. When someone says “thank you” it makes me feel great. And it makes me want to work harder in order to get more of that great feeling.

You’ve probably heard that praise should be given in public while corrective actions should always be done privately. One of the reasons behind this is because the feelings underlying your feedback (positive or negative) get transmitted to everyone around – not just the person receiving the feedback. So people who witness a coworker receiving kudos for their efforts instinctively begin to act in ways they perceive will result in getting their share of the praise.

For years I’ve said “You will receive an abundance of what you praise or tolerate.” I honestly believe positive feedback is one of the most powerful tools at a leader’s disposal. Unfortunately, positive feedback is difficult for most people. Like most skills, you have to work at it in order to get good at it. Thankfully, the reward is well worth the effort.

I’ll bet you can think of someone in your organization that could use some positive feedback. Imagine the good that you’ll receive when you stop reading this article and go deliver it. In fact, why don’t you go do it right now?

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