On Feedback

Can positive feedback be used in place of negative feedback?

5 minute read

Feedback is difficult, especially because we don’t take it as a skill to be learned but we expect everyone to be already good at that. Even more, when we say feedback we often refer to negative feedback only. This is misleading because it doesn’t just ignore positive feedback, but also assumes that it’s the right way to operate.

Let’s take this self-reported data:

Self-reported effectiveness of managers in giving feedback (higher is better):

  • Gives no feedback — 31%
  • Gives negative feedback only — 73%
  • Gives positive feedback only — 41%
  • Gives both positive and negative feedback — 79%

— J. Zenger, J. Folkman (2017) Why Do So Many Managers Avoid Giving Praise?

Managers that give negative feedback only feel they are doing better than managers that don’t: twice as much! They also believe they are effective almost as well as the ones that give both positive and negative feedback.

Is this true? Let’s see what the people manager by them say:

Effectiveness in giving feedback by percentile (higher is better) in relationship to being evaluated as a good manager:

  • Gives no feedback — 41st
  • Gives negative feedback only — 36th
  • Gives positive feedback only — 53rd
  • Gives both positive and negative feedback — 52nd

This shows a huge gap. Managers that give only negative feedback are actually seen badly, even worse than the ones that give no feedback at all.

This isn’t all, because we also know that giving negative feedback is hard not just for the person that receives it, but also for the person that gives it:

In a survey of 7,631 people, we asked whether they believed that giving negative feedback was stressful or difficult, and 44% agreed.

Why if it’s the least effective approach to management, and it’s also a stressful thing to do, we keep believing it’s a good thing to do?

I blame for the most part the confusion we have between rudeness and clarity. In my experience I found out that we are so acclimatized to rudeness that we think it’s how feedback is given and clarity is achieved.

The Ways of Positive Feedback

The absence of positive feedback creates a relationship dynamic that is unbalanced. It’s very hard to take a negative feedback in absence of positive feedback, even if it’s very well done, if there’s no proof that the person giving it appreciates, respects and trust the person receiving it. This is the same idea behind radical candor. The more a person trusts you that you have a true and sincere interest in them, the easier it is to convey even hard feedback.

In short: the simplest way to start building that respect and trust, is to give positive feedback. It’s not the only way of course, as trust is a multi-faceted thing, yet it’s a very simple starting point for managers.

Positive feedback can be private or public, small or big, informal or formal. I personally tend to prefer less formal approaches, but there’s also value in these — especially if they aren’t correlated with prizes, as they would trigger extrinsic motivation, risking to kill intrinsic one.

I know how hard it can be to learn to give positive feedback, it took me years and I feel I’ve yet a lot to learn. Here some pointers:

  1. Don’t take good work as “they are just doing their job”. People have an hard time to assess the value of their own stuff, due to internal bias, so it’s very valuable to highlight what’s good.
  2. Try to review people work compared to the past: both their past work and the company previous state, and highlight all the improvements that happened.
  3. Acknowledge also behaviours that aren’t strictly “job title” related. Good behaviour is viral: one person doing it, validated in public, tend to spread the good behaviour.
  4. Try to notice when people say the right thing at the right moment, and highlight that.
  5. Try to give credit.
  6. Try to give credit in groups. If someone said something valuable and has been ignored or taken over by someone else, put back the spotlight on them.

And so on. The general idea is that one doesn’t need a groundbreaking performance to give praise. Good, day to day activities can be praised and validated.

One comment I often receive is that sometimes negative feedback is necessary, so one can’t always use positive feedback. The counter intuitive aspect here is that positive feedback can also be used to address problems, not just to give praise.

While sometimes negative feedback is the only kind that can be given, I often see situations where a negative feedback was given where it was possible to give a positive one. This seems counter intuitive right?

Let’s give an example: I worked in the past with a junior designer that had problems in seeing alignment across the whole layout.

  • Negative framing: at the end of the layout “This layout still has alignment issues. These boxes are wrong. Please fix here and here”.
  • Positive framing: at the beginning before work started “You did good progress on alignment so far, pay attention to it when you are on this project” and then when work is reviewed: “Excellent job, it’s very solid. There are still a couple of small issues, can you spot them?”.

As you see from the example, timing is also important. Just a small sentence at the beginning of the work, no more than three seconds, and the whole feedback will take an entirely different turn.

Also positive reinforcement builds over time: for smaller things you can ignore problems and instead highlight when the person is headed in the right direction. Over time the positive feedback will steer the person in the right direction, without even needing to ever mention the negatives.

What about the longer term impact? An interesting study highlights that only positive feedback creates sustained behavioural change:

Coaching and mentoring to the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) emphasizes compassion for the individual’s hopes and dreams and has been shown to enhance a behavioral change. In contrast, coaching to the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA), by focusing on externally defined criteria for success and the individual’s weaknesses in relation to them, does not show sustained change.

A. I. Jack, R. E. Boyatzis, M. S. Khawaja, A. M. Passarelli, R. L. Leckie (2013) Visioning in the brain: an fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring

Positive reinforcement is also critical for people that have impostor syndrome, which are often high performers: they think more critically of themselves, and they thus underestimate their own achievement, often worrying they will get fired or removed from the group soon. Positive feedback is a natural way to help people in their fight against the impostor syndrome.

What to do then when negative feedback is the only possibility? It’s still hard, but it’s far easier if it lands in a context of trust, where positive feedback was given for weeks and months. Trust is the most effective way for any personal and work relationship to evolve.

Further Readings