Performance feedback: Specific positive feedback encourages positive behaviour.
Not all positive feedback is created equal. Unfortunately generic (wishy washy “nice job”) positive feedback can have reducing impact or even disengage employees over time. In addition generic positive feedback is often accompanied by specific detailed criticism “You wave your hands around when you present, which is very distracting.” We need to be as specific with what was good and what worked, as well as with areas to be improved.
In order for feedback to encourage positive behaviour it needs to be specific and clear. “You did a great job with your presentation. Your message ‘Be the change’ was clear and memorable. I particularly enjoyed the story about how you were inspired to change by the action of your boss, and how you have since applied the lesson; that really resonated with me.”
We sometimes try to hide criticism with “positives” as we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Unfortunately this can backfire if the “positives” are not specific. e.g. your presentation was funny does not tell them why you thought it was funny, which jokes helped make your point. There are many stories about employees who received glowing performance reviews right up to the day they were let go for “performance issues.” There were problems that should have been addressed, but instead “positive” platitudes were used to cover the underlying criticism to avoid hurting feelings.
Positive performance feedback works best when it is specific and used in tandem with one or two areas to improve, with suggestions clearly demonstrated. The balance should always be more specific positives than suggestions for improvement, encouraging the behaviour we want repeated.
Unbalanced positive performance feedback can give people false confidence beyond their actual skill, or performance, levels.
Positive reinforcement can be powerful, but to be effective it also needs to be specific and clear.
Consider these examples:
- “Good job. Keep it up.”
- “Your report was well written, your thoughts logical and your conclusions were on target. Your computer analogy effectively made your point about the outcome being only as good as the inputs. ”
The first comment may make the listener feel good, but leave them in the dark about why it was good. It might make them feel you didn’t notice what they did, that the compliment was automatic, rather than sincere. The second comment is specific and positive, it tells the listener what you valued, and clearly shows you paid attention. Additionally the second clearly shows which behaviour to repeat.
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