The topic of delivering performance feedback typically focuses on how to provide constructive or critical feedback aimed at improving performance. I have written several articles aimed at offering sound practices for improving employee performance using effective performance feedback and realize that I have not appropriately addressed the importance of positive feedback. I believe that both constructive and positive feedback are critically important for high performance but for different reasons.

positive performance feedbackSearching for suggestions, approaches and models on providing positive performance feedback provides one with a great deal of content on providing positive feedback during the performance review. Unfortunately, in too many cases the performance review is the only time positive feedback is provided. Now we can all understand why people hate performance reviews….

Do We Really Need Positive Feedback and Recognition?

Jack Zenger recently discussed some of his research in an article on regarding people’s preferences and perceptions of performance feedback. A majority of people in their study preferred negative feedback than positive feedback when reflecting on the type of feedback that has been helpful in their career. Effective constructive feedback can have a great impact but that does not negate the impact of positive feedback, praise and recognition.

I have heard managers at all levels say that providing positive feedback is unnecessary and takes up too much time. We are adults, we all know when we are doing a good job. We don’t need to be told by someone else. The reality is that when we don’t receive positive feedback we tend to fill in missing information or create our own opinion of our performance – which may be negative and inaccurate. “I must not be doing that great of a job or else my boss would have said something….” this is true for employees at all levels.

Why Does Positive Feedback Work?

The classic behaviorist theories of positive reinforcement certainly explain why positive feedback is important. We need to reinforce the behaviors that we want employees to repeat. However we know that our work environment is much more complex than a laboratory with a Skinner Box. David Rock has written extensively on the science of Neuroleadership. He introduced the SCARF model which defines 5 domains of social experience that activate threats and rewards in the brain and thereby influence a range of human behavior. These 5 domains impact our perceptions of social situations, whether they be rewarding or threatening, in our personal and work lives. 

  • Status refers to one’s sense of importance relative to others (e.g. peers, manager, friends, etc.)
  • Certainty refers to one’s need for clarity in situations and the ability to make accurate predictions about what will happen in the future.
  • Autonomy is related to a sense of control over what happens in one’s life and the belief that one’s own behavior has an impact on outcomes (e.g., getting a raise, being promoted)
  • Relatedness concerns to one’s sense of security with and connectedness to another person (e.g., manager, co-workers, friends)
  • Fairness refers to the just and non-biased exchange between people (e.g., equal pay for equal work, sharing of workload)

The SCARF model offers great insight into how and why positive feedback can have a ‘positive’ impact on an individual and help improve performance. The employee-manager relationship is a social situation that inherently creates a threat. Managers are at a higher status within the organization. They may create a sense of uncertainty by not setting clear goals or offering enough guidance and direction. Bosses have the final word in decision-making which impacts one’s perceptions of autonomy. Managers tend to limit their personal interaction with employees (i.e. not get too close or have friendships outside of work) resulting in a reduced sense of relatedness. Lastly, an individual’s experience of fairness is directly related to the fact that managers evaluate their performance, and have a direct impact on important outcomes (i.e. pay, promotions).

How to Deliver Positive Feedback

performance feedbackManagers can minimize the experience of threats and increase rewards by focusing on the individual relationship they have with each employee. Considering the SCARF model as described above when delivering positive performance feedback can create more positive social experiences and support engagement. The 5 recommendations outlined below can help managers maximize the impact of positive performance feedback and continue to build an engaging relationship with employees.

Timeliness. Delivering timely positive feedback and recognition targets an employee’s experience of status by letting them know their manager is paying attention and that what they are doing is important.  Recognize performance as close in time to the actual situation as possible. Waiting several days, weeks, or months to recognize performance greatly reduces the impact the positive feedback will have on the individual. Memories fade quickly, detail is lost, and behavior is forgotten. Every effort to deliver feedback in a timely manner is important. It needs to be a priority for managers, not an occasional action. 

Clarity and Specificity. Uncertainty can be reduced by offering clear and specific feedback on what an individual has done well so that they know what to continue to do in the future. Everyone loves a compliment, but it is not helpful to say something like “great job!” or "you rock!" without anything else to clarify what specifically was said or done that was so great. Specificity helps to support the reward associated with certainty.

Link Behavior to Results. Providing context to positive feedback can heighten one’s sense of autonomy. Explaining how the effort or behavior has made a positive impact on the team/organization increases one’s feeling on control over their situation. Understanding the impact of actions serves to fuel motivation to perform and is a critical aspect of positive feedback.

Appreciate and Connect. Managers can tap into the employee’s experience of relatedness by expressing appreciation for the positive performance. Indicating personal appreciation for the employee's behavior and contribution helps to facilitate the employee-manager relationship. Using the words, “I appreciate what you did because…” goes a long way. Taking the extra time to interact in a positive way can build trust and connectedness with employees.

Balance. An overwhelming amount of effort is put into finding effective ways to deliver critical or negative feedback. Employees need to receive balanced feedback over time to experience fairness. Without a conscious effort on the part of managers to deliver praise and recognition, employees will likely always zero-in on the negative.

Performance management software can help make the process of delivering and tracking positive performance feedback easy for managers. Tools are available that help managers document feedback in real-time and collaborate with team members to stay motivated and on track. Click here to learn more about launch a new performance management process within your company.

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