Feedback shouldn’t only be given when there’s a problem. It’s also important to let your employees know they’re on the right track and that they’re valued within the company. Recognizing achievements can signal to other employees the types of skills that should be enhanced and behavior that should be replicated. For those of you who are uncomfortable giving positive feedback, following the right steps will help you to deliver honest recognition that doesn’t feel forced or insincere.
Putting positive feedback to the test
In his insightful Ted Talk “What makes us feel good about our work?”, behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes an experiment he conducted on the correlation between recognition and motivation. In the experiment, people were offered declining amounts of money to circle pairs of identical letters on a sheet of paper. In the first scenario, people had to write their name on the paper. When they were finished, they handed it to an experimenter who quickly scanned the paper, said “aha” and placed it on a pile. In the second scenario, the participants did not write their name on the paper. When they were finished, the experimenter placed the paper on the pile without looking at it. In the final scenario, the experimenter put the sheets directly into a shredder.
The results showed that people in the first scenario ended up working for half as much money as the people in the third scenario. Watching their work being destroyed immediately was extremely demotivating, despite being offered money to do an easy task over and over again. Surprisingly, it turns out that the average stopping point for people in the second scenario was almost the same as those in the third. As Mr. Ariely explained, “Ignoring people’s performance was almost as bad as shredding it in front of their eyes.” Even just a simple acknowledgment from the experimenter had a marked impact on the subjects’ motivation.
Why is positive feedback important?
A common misconception is that motivation in the workplace is primarily based on monetary rewards. It’s not always possible to give your employees a raise every time they do well, and surprisingly it might not be the strongest incentive either. A 2013 study by Make Their Day and Badgeville revealed that 83% of employees surveyed found recognition for contributions to be more fulfilling than rewards and gifts. Another 88% believed praise from managers, in particular, was either very or extremely motivating.
Positive feedback lets your employees know that they’re valued by the company and is especially important for building confidence in newer employees. It’s also helpful to give positive feedback when an employee improves in an area they had previously had difficulty with, making it very useful as a follow up to constructive feedback.
Don’t forget that your top performers also need positive feedback. Many managers tend to neglect their top performers when it comes to feedback because they see it more as a tool for helping improve the performance of employees who are struggling. Recognizing them for their efforts and showing appreciation are important steps to retaining your top talent.
While creating a positive feedback culture starts with managers, encouraging your employees to give positive feedback to each other is the step that will diffuse and institutionalize the practice within the office. The Make Their Day/Badgeville study reported that 76% of respondents saw praise from peers as very or extremely motivating. Peer-to-peer feedback can inspire better interpersonal relationships between employees and boost team spirit.
How to give positive feedback:
- Be specific
Avoid generic comments like “good job!” Explain what your employee did in particular so they can learn what type of behavior they should keep up in future. Instead of saying “you’re a great team player” describe what they did and why you appreciated it. “The extra coaching you gave to the new recruits on the last project helped them to learn the appropriate procedures, and helped our department to reach our deadline on time.” This will also help managers who are uncomfortable giving positive feedback. If you stick with stating the facts and why you thought their performance deserved the recognition you can avoid clichés.
Timing is an important aspect of giving positive feedback. If you wait too long both you and the receiver might forget the details of their performance. This will undermine one of the main reasons for giving positive feedback: pointing out positive behavior so it can be encouraged and replicated. If you put it off for too long, when the employee finally receives appreciation for their work, so much time may have passed that it could feel more like an afterthought. If you don’t have time to speak with them straight away, send them a message or email. Letting the opportunity to give praise go by in some instances and not others can unintentionally create double standards.
- Get into the habit of giving feedback more frequently
Failing to recognize when your team has gone above and beyond can demotivate them. Not recognizing their efforts will tell them they simply met expectations. Getting into the habit of giving positive feedback more often will motivate your employees to achieve more.
Be careful not to base positive feedback exclusively on results. Sometimes even if an employee puts forth their best effort, a project could fall through due to funding, a client may decide to go in a different direction, etc. It’s at these times that positive feedback can be most effective in counteracting the demotivating feeling your employee may be experiencing after not seeing their efforts materialize.
- Set goals and new challenges
Even if you only have positive feedback to give, you should encourage your employees to continue improving by helping them set goals and new challenges. This is especially important for top performers who may become demotivated if they don’t feel they’re developing or being challenged.
Start by asking them if they have any professional goals or objectives they’d like to accomplish in the next few months, or in the next few years. Consider how these short and long term goals could fit with the company’s objectives. Then offer support finding ways they could achieve these goals, for example, taking on a stretch assignment or participating in a training course. Keep in mind that the goals you’re setting together should be challenging but achievable, and won’t cut into your employee’s work-life balance.
- Encourage a positive feedback culture
A 2009 Mckinsey Quarterly survey found that respondents saw praise from their managers, leadership attention and a chance to lead projects or task forces as no less or even more effective motivators than cash-based incentives. Aside from giving praise, you can also recognize your employees’ achievements by suggesting they give feedback and coaching to peers who are having difficulties in that particular area. This can help top employees develop leadership skills, and at the same time boost the performance levels of other employees.
Alternatively, you could suggest they give a presentation on this project, skill, etc. to the team. This will demonstrate an example of what you’re looking for to other employees and reinforce your recognition of their success. If employees share their successes with the rest of the team more often it will help foster a sense of community. Encouraging your employees to give more feedback and empowering them with new leadership skills is one of the best ways to keep them challenged and motivated.
Summary and takeaways:
An effective manager consistently recognizes their employees’ strengths and achievements with positive feedback. Employees who feel their work is appreciated by their manager and peers are highly motivated and more likely to stick with their current job. Giving more positive feedback can be a great way to encourage team spirit and a positive work culture.
- Give examples and be specific
- Don’t wait too long
- Give feedback more frequently
- Don’t base feedback on results
- Set goals and new challenges
- Encourage peer-to-peer feedback and sharing of achievements