Being Intentional with Positive Feedback

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This week’s tip is about the need for feedback givers to put great care into the positive feedback they give.

As we covered in our 5 Feedback Myths video (see below), giving positive feedback:

  • is not optional
  • is not meaningless “fluff”
  • is not a sign of your weakness
  • can dramatically improve morale
  • can highlight vital gaps

Indeed, many narratives have been created about why giving positive feedback isn’t worthwhile. As the authors of a Harvard Business Review article conclude:

“We can only conclude that many managers feel that… taking the time to provide positive feedback is optional.”

And yet the feedback research shows that positive feedback can have short- and longer-term positive effects on employee performance and morale.

And yet there’s a mountain of anecdotal evidence showing the benefits of positive feedback on organizations and people.

Organizations need it because how else are they supposed to know the feature they hope to be sticky and delightful… actually is? I’m now thinking of how Slack radically leveraged feedback to become a $1 billion company in two years. As Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s founder, put it:

“We begged and cajoled our friends at other companies to try it out and give us feedback.”

Rest assured, this was not only feedback about what wasn’t working well.

People need positive feedback both for motivation and because many of us do not know our strengths. Those who highlight them through positive feedback shine a light on something we can’t see.

A colorful abstract painting shows two women of color sitting at a desk. One turns on a light as they work.
Source: Cameron Conaway. Image created using Magic Media by Canva

As I shared in my article about feedback at Harvard Business Review, I honestly didn’t know my strengths even after years of writing classes until a professor called them out. How was I supposed to know when every paper I received back was covered in red pen notes on what to improve?

But what makes positive feedback effective? Intentionality. Yes, while a comment like “awesome work on our project last week” can provide value, a comment like this takes it all to a whole new level:

“Awesome work on our project last week. You showed an incredible ability to pull cross-functional teams together, keep everyone not only organized but even inspired, and the result was that we delivered ahead of time for our client. Under your leadership, I’m already excited to see what we can do on our next project.”

Such specific positive feedback typically arises from intention, as in, while it’s easy to fling a relatively empty compliment out there, if a giver sets their intention to give specific positive feedback they will position themselves to capture meaningful details.

In the example above, that colleague may not have felt they did a great job. Or they may have known they kept folks organized, but they didn’t know they also kept folks inspired. And it might be the first time anybody has ever referred to their “leadership.”

When you provide specific positive feedback like this, you invite others into an opportunity to see a fuller picture of themselves. And, as negativity bias impacts most of us, seeing a fuller positive picture of ourselves can be especially helpful for personal and professional growth.