Positive feedback helps because:

  • it reinforces existing good behavior,
  • it communicates that someone inspects the work, and
  • it opens the apperture to receive corrective feedback.

Reinforcing existing good behavior helps maintain it. Managers can reasonably expect staff to complete 60% of assigned tasks; we want to preserve that good behavior. If we focus on correcting the missing 40%, most people will perform worse. Build foundations; reinforce the existing good stuff.

Staff sometimes perform poorly because they think no one inspects their work. Why bother; nobody checks. Positive feedback communicates that we do inspect. Oh, you do check up on me. Call it friendly Machiavellian.

Staff do need some corrective feedback. It only works, though, if they absorb it. Most people act like a camera; positive feedback opens the apperature a bit; corrective feedback closes it a lot. Remember to open the apperature. While people differ in sensitivity, most find a ratio of 3:1 positive to corrective about right.

A few tips that work for me:

Use shaping. Make the positive feedback relevant and incremental.

  • Relevant: While teaching someone to swim, praise the swimming technique. Good coordination of legs and arms.
  • Incremental: First praise getting in the water, then praise floating, then blowing bubbles, et cetera.

Make feedback specific and immediate. Point to observable behavior; do it within hours not days.

Remember, you don’t have to do it perfectly (face it: you never will).

Adapted from personal communication with Dr. Randy Paterson.