Most of us are familiar with the dreaded “yearly review.” It’s oftentimes viewed as little more than a paperwork requirement for the HR department, but that’s too bad, because when done properly, feedback is useful for the growth of both the worker and the organization. There are a lot of benefits to providing positive feedback, including increased employee morale, providing a pleasant work environment, and increased job satisfaction and performance.
However, providing positive feedback entails a lot more than just a pat on the back and saying, “good job.” In fact, positive feedback is woefully misunderstood and underused in today’s business culture.
What is Positive Feedback?
Positive feedback is feedback designed to reinforce a desired behavior. How does this differ from negative feedback? Negative feedback, instead of reinforcing, is designed to redirect an unwanted behavior. Here are two very simple examples:
Negative feedback: “If you don’t start backing up your reports with more facts and analysis to support your opinion, we’ll get someone who can.”
Positive feedback: “Good job on that report, I liked how you backed up your ideas with facts and analysis that supported your conclusion.”
Now, both statements encourage the person to use more “facts and analysis” in their report, but one takes a “vinegar” approach and the other a “honey” approach. You can probably guess which approach catches more flies.
Why Focus on Positive Feedback?
As stated earlier, positive feedback is associated with higher employee morale, a better work environment, and more productive employees. Additionally, a Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose managers focused on their strengths were fully engaged in their work, as compared with only 31% of employees whose managers focused on their weaknesses. 
Additionally, IBM’s WorkTrends survey of over 19,000 workers in 26 countries, across all major industries and thousands of organizations, revealed that:
- Employees who receive recognition are more likely to be engaged at work. In fact, the engagement level of employees who receive recognition is almost three times higher than the engagement level of those who do not.
- Workers who receive recognition are less likely to quit. Without recognition, about half (51 percent) of surveyed employees said they intended to leave their current positions, while with recognition, just one quarter (25 percent) said they intended to leave their organizations.
- Employees whose organizations use multiple communication channels for recognition are more likely to feel appreciated and show a higher level of employee engagement. The more channels used for recognition, the higher the employee engagement level.
The findings show that positive feedback has a clear, constructive impact on employees. What’s more, the report implies that technologies such as social media and mobile communication could be strong candidates for the effective delivery of recognition, as they offer interactive, frequent, and immediate communication via multiple channels.
Positive feedback is also an effective team management strategy. Studies have shown that high-performing teams share more than six times the amount of positive feedback of average-performing teams. In addition, low-performing teams share nearly twice as much negative feedback as average-performing teams. Again, the evidence in favor of positive feedback is clear. 
Why is Giving Positive Feedback so Difficult?
With all the benefits positive feedback produces in the workplace, why isn’t it used more? The answer to that lies in our own personality traits:
- If, for example, a person didn’t get any positive feedback as they were “coming up,” then they may not understand its value for others.
- Some people feel that negative feedback has more of an impact on business than positive feedback. However, studies show that this is not the case.
- Managers may see positive feedback as wishy-washy and negative feedback as a sign that they are a strong leader.
- Others may not think that positive feedback is warranted for employees “just doing their jobs.”
- Some fear that positive feedback will have a demotivating effect on employees. In other words, telling someone that they are doing a “great job” will give them permission to not work as hard. Again, studies have shown this concern to be unfounded.
- Finally, some people think that the only way for people to grow is through corrective feedback.
Another reason that positive feedback is underused today is the sandwich effect. For years, there was a school of thought that said that the best way to deliver negative feedback was to “sandwich” it in between two pieces of positive feedback. This was supposed to “lessen the blow” of the negative feedback. What it really did was to negate and devalue the benefits of positive feedback. So, let’s throw away that old, stale sandwich!
Effective Techniques for Providing Positive Feedback
When it comes to positive feedback, saying “good job” or giving your coworkers a pat on the back just isn’t going to cut it. If you want to encourage workplace harmony, increase productivity, encourage creativity, or achieve any of the other benefits positive feedback can provide, then keep these tips in mind:
1. Catch Them in the Act
As humans, we learn best when the reward (positive feedback) is given as soon as possible after the act has occurred. Don’t save up praise to be given at a later date. As the saying goes, if you see something, say something.
2. Personalize It
Make sure to give your feedback directly to the person yourself. Also, you want to understand your colleague’s personality. Most people are okay with receiving positive feedback publicly, but not everyone, so it’s important to know your colleagues well and proceed accordingly. Also, as a side note, negative feedback should always be given in private.
3. Be Specific
Remember when we said that saying “good job” wasn’t enough? This is why: If you’re not specific in your feedback, then employees or coworkers can be unclear on what behaviors to continue. Saying, “Great job on your presentation to the client; you really nailed that sale” doesn’t give much information. Consider this feedback instead: “Great job on your presentation; I know that they aren’t the easiest clients. But you came in prepared and kept your cool in the negotiations. That’s what saved the sale.” This feedback highlights specific behaviors that you want to be reinforced.
4. Be Sincere
Just like everyone else, your colleagues can smell insincerity a mile away. So, if you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
5. Be Forward Looking
The goal of positive feedback should be to improve a person’s performance in the future. Praise those behaviors that you would like to see repeated.
6. Tie It to a Business or Professional Goal
“If you go into all your sales meetings as well prepared as you did this one, you’re going to be one of our top salespeople.” This statement acknowledges the benefit to both the company and the salesperson.
7. Make Sure Your Feedback Is Actionable
Focus on the specific behaviors that you want to encourage. Using overly generalized statements can cause more confusion and is generally not helpful. Identifying positive behaviors gives your colleague a clear road map of how to act moving forward.
8. Forget the “But”
Don’t try to mix in negative feedback; it will only serve to stymie any benefits from the positive feedback. Besides, everyone should have their “day in the sun.”
9. Focus on Effort or Behavior
By focusing on a person’s behavior instead of on a trait or talent, you are encouraging your colleagues to develop a growth mindset. This is a critical component of both personal and organizational success