On Feedback

Good and Bad Positive Feedback

3 minute read

There’s a lot of talk on constructive feedback, critique, but what about positive feedback? Positive feedback is often dismissed, the most used ones being “they are just doing their job” and “I don’t want them to settle”. The problem with this approach is that most of the time it means a problem in the way positive feedback was given, not a problem with positive feedback in itself.

The bad kind of positive

When positive feedback is given to soften the negative one. This is a major red flag. Positive feedback should exist independently of the negative one. If it’s used one time, two times, three times, as just a way to “sandwich” the negative one, then it’s like it never existed. In practice, it’s even worse, because now the association has been created that “when a positive note comes, I’m expecting the negative to come right after”, destroying even when positive feedback is given on its own.

When positive feedback is given to gain a favor. It’s very damaging when positive feedback is just a mean to obtain something from the other person. It’s manipulative, and doesn’t just harm the feedback, but also damages the trust between the two people. People should never feel in need to “repay” a positive feedback.

When positive feedback is generic. Sure, it’s always nice to receive a “you’re awesome”, a “good job” or a “you’re smart”, but that’s not feedback, that’s basic emotional support — that’s praise. Generic feedback shouldn’t be categorized at all as feedback. It’s good, it’s ok, it’s appreciation, but if that’s the only thing done, then it becomes in the long term just background noise.

Good positive feedback

Positive feedback is stand-alone. It doesn’t need to be paired with negative feedback, it doesn’t need to be in support of some other initiative. Give positive feedback when there’s a good reason to give it.

Positive feedback is specific. It refers always to some specific action that the person took.

Positive feedback reinforces good. This is important because it means that among all the possible decisions the person could have taken, they picked one that works and is effective. Even among good decisions, there are “okay” good decisions, and there are “excellent” good decisions. It’s worth being specific: “this was good, this is why I think it was good, this is the effect I noticed that make it a particularly good action”.

Positive feedback is ongoing. While it can be useful to recap work in a retrospective or individual 1:1 over a period of time (quarterly, yearly, etc), feedback in general is particularly effective when it’s ongoing. It’s always worth spending that extra 3 minutes it takes to give precise feedback.

Positive feedback is actionable. This is also something often missed: how possibly is actionable if they have already done it? It’s not like there’s something to be fixed. True! It’s not actionable as constructive feedback can be, but it still is in a different way: “you’re smart” doesn’t give you any information. “Contacting this person to discuss and clarify this before it became an issue” is actionable because it’s repeatable, and the “why” expressed in it highlight better the situation when it’s useful to do it. They will likely do it again in the future, do it more, and even teach others by example on how to do it by being more explicit.

Positive feedback is about actions. Sure, we can think someone is “better” or “smarter” or “a natural”, but did they put work in it? Did you see progress? Is it something that others can learn? One can’t learn “natural”, but they can learn a specific action. Especially when praise is done in public (if the person receiving it is comfortable with it) it tells everyone else that they can do it too.

It’s also notable that the above principles tend to apply to any kind of feedback, positive or negative. With positive feedback it’s just harder because we need to learn to notice it: if something bad happens, you clearly will see it. If something good happens, things just move forward, there isn’t a natural “hey I’m here!” moment, so it requires a higher attention to be able to provide positive feedback.

With the principles above, almost all the criticism around positive feedback vanishes, which is a clear indicator on how it’s not usually a problem with “positive” in itself, it’s a problem with “bad positive”. In short, it’s a skill to be learned.

Thanks to Tammie Lister for her feedback on this post.