Positive Feedback

Positive Feedback

For some reason, there seems to be a fair amount of consternation surrounding the concept of “positive feedback.” I have heard people say that they do not give positive feedback very often, because they do not see why they should thank people for doing their jobs.

I find this baffling. You thank your waitress for bringing you an extra napkin when you spill your water across the table, don’t you? She is just doing her job. And I imagine you thank the person in the post office who hands you your stamps, your child’s teacher after the parent teacher conference, and the cashier at the local grocery store. They are all just doing their jobs, too.

Positive feedback can encourage, motivate, and teach people. It can deepen professional relationships, and improve the morale of your organization. So, why the hesitation to thank people who work for you?

Appreciation, if overdone, can become meaningless

One concern is that too much positive feedback can become meaningless. I once coached someone who only gave positive feedback to his team. However, they knew they were not

perfect, so his failure to provide them with constructive criticism, suggestions, etc., ultimately negated the value of his positive feedback. They simply stopped believing him.

Positive feedback is most effective when it is one piece of the feedback that people receive. Most people want to learn, improve, and grow. They cannot do that in an environment that only addresses one aspect of their behavior – even if it is the positive aspect.

Don’t Lie

Other times, people are hesitant to give positive feedback because it feels disingenuous. The answer to this is simple. Do not give positive feedback if you do not believe what you are saying. First, the person receiving the feedback will sense your hesitation. Second, the feedback will be counterproductive, as it will reinforce behavior that you do not actually like.

In addition, do not give positive feedback when you really want to give negative feedback. Let’s say that someone who works for you wrote an excellent memo. However, she finished the memo a week after the deadline, so it was no longer relevant to the client. It does not matter how good the memo is, if it is functionally useless. So, focus on the timeliness issue and what you expect in the future, rather than burying that issue under a lot of compliments about the excellent writing style. This doesn’t mean that you cannot mention that it was well written – you can. But your emphasis needs to be on the deadline issue.

Sometimes positive feedback makes the recipient uncomfortable

People prefer to receive feedback in different ways. Some people would appreciate a private conversation with you. Others are more private and would prefer to receive an email or a written note. And others like being publicly acknowledged, so you might try to recognize them in a public forum. (Be careful though, that that you don’t end up always acknowledging the same people publicly. This may give the impression that the more private people don’t do as good a job.)

The trick here is to think about the people to whom you are giving the feedback, and try to give it to them in the way that will be most comfortable for them. And if you’re not sure what they would prefer, you can always ask try asking them.

How do you give positive feedback?

There are a few rules of thumb – make the feedback timely and precise, and describe the effect of the person’s actions.

First, do not wait until someone’s annual performance review to give them feedback -this applies to both positive and negative feedback. Your team members will grow and learn a lot more rapidly if you let them know, on a regular basis, how they are doing.

Second, be precise. If your team members are doing something well, you want them to continue doing what they are doing. But vague compliments will be less effective in reinforcing their behavior. For example, rather than saying, “Good job handling that client when he was so peeved,” instead say, “You did a good job handling Bob in the meeting on Thursday. When he got angry because the project is behind schedule, you listened to him without interrupting, you maintained eye contact, you acknowledged the error we had made and apologized, and you then described what we were doing to fix the problem. That really calmed him down.”

Finally, describe the positive effect their behavior made. (“That really calmed him down.”) It helps bring home the importance of their actions and often makes them more meaningful.

In summary, positive feedback can have many benefits to the recipients and to the organization as a whole. It is most effective when it is honest, timely, precise, and given in the manner that the recipient would prefer.


In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network.

Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs.