Watch out for these mistakes with positive feedback

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Jaakko Kaikuluoma 31 Aug 2020
Positive feedback is a present

Positive feedback has enormous potential for you and your team. But there is also a quality aspect to all feedback. Here we’re presenting four ideas to keep in mind. First, make sure you’re actually giving positive feedback. Second, focus on action and effort, not abilities and traits. Third, ensure there is a healthy balance between positive feedback and discussion about problems. Finally, make sure your feedback is given directly to the recipient, and then feel free to give in on positive gossip.

The evidence in favour of positive feedback coming from leaders and co-workers is overwhelmingly strong. Positive feedback improves creative problem solving, performance under pressure, social relationships, and even individuals’ physiology. In addition to the good feelings it creates, positive feedback reinforces mutual trust and helps build on individual strengths. However, there are some ways where positive feedback can go wrong.

In this post, we’re covering four possible mistakes in positive feedback.

Mistake #1: Not giving positive feedback at all

This is probably quite obvious but still worth noting: The grand mistake in feedback is not to give positive feedback at all. If that is the case with you, you’re missing out on a lot. An easy way to get started is by saying thanks or congratulating others for great work.

And remember, it’s more important to give feedback than to make it perfect.

Mistake #2: Focusing on ability rather than effort

“You’re so smart” does not seem like a bad thing to say, right? Despite having a good motive, the kind of feedback that focuses on an ability – rather than effort – contributes to a fixed mindset, according to Professor Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset.

This is how the thinking behind a fixed mindset may sound like:

“When I succeed, I’m told to be smart. So when I fail, people must think I’m incapable. Therefore, I must prove I’m smart by never failing.”

In Dweck’s research, a fixed mindset encouraged people to quit when assignments got hard. These people did not feel comfortable trying multiple solutions in fear of public failure and thus, didn’t try as hard as they could have. Consequently, they had weaker motivation, lower task performance, and less task-enjoyment than their growth mindset peers. And it was only because they were told to be smart when they succeeded.

Dweck’s research suggests that feedback contributes to a growth mindset when it focuses on learning and effort instead of ability. So here are some better alternatives for positive feedback

  • It was hard and you did it anyways. I’m so proud of you!
  • You kept trying and made it. Respect!
  • You didn’t give up and kept pushing through. It was amazing to watch!
  • That was a great presentation, I especially liked how you used pauses!

While it’s debated how much of an influence feedback has on the recipient’s mindset, it’s still better to focus on effort rather than ability. We have more control over our effort than our abilities.

Mistake #3: Avoiding difficult conversations with forced positivity

The theory of loss aversion says: “Losses loom larger than gains.“ (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979)

Threats are more urgent than rewards – finding fruit is forgotten when facing a tiger. We’re also not great at focusing on the positive while in pain – we’re much more likely to want the pain to stop or to talk about the problem causing the pain. If a problem is unaddressed, and gets swept under the rug by “being positive”, it’s natural to think the problem and the pain will persist. This is where focusing too much on the positive and only giving positive and reinforcing feedback becomes a whole new problem: “I’m not being heard”.

A good rule of thumb is to address the pain and the problem causing it first. When there is a peace of mind that problems are not ignored, people are much more responsive to and appreciative of positive feedback.

Using a pulse questionnaire can be a great way to help people speak up about whatever is on their mind, thus helping them better receive positive feedback.

Mistake #4: Using weak positive signals (gossip and non-verbal feedback)

Making positive remarks behind someone’s back may feel like a good idea, and it often is. However, such praise rarely reaches the person in question. It’s common that we avoid giving positive feedback directly because “she knows how great she is”. This is not feedback, it’s gossip – although perhaps the best kind!

The pattern of non-direct feedback repeats with parents, colleagues and team leaders alike. This may be due to the common reaction to brush off positive feedback like it is not deserved. If you brush off and reject positive feedback, people will feel uneasy giving it the next time. So don’t overthink it – just say thanks and smile. The comic “Finnish Nightmares” fits here quite nicely.

Finnish Nightmares comic demonstrates the potential awkwardness of being praiset at work

Apparently Finns are famous for their abilities to receive praise. Find more comics like this from the Finnish Nightmares blog

Another common way to give positive feedback is non-verbal communication. You can smile and nod your head while someone is speaking, and think you’re giving feedback for a month’s worth, but it’s unlikely registered as such. Without hearing words of encouragement and thanks after a challenging situation, people will likely just think you were kind for smiling and nodding – not that they did a great job. Instead of relying on these kinds of hints, give verbal feedback. Say your appreciation aloud or write a note saying thanks for the great work with X. Getting written feedback gives more time to process it and is thus harder to brush off. Or send them complements with Teamspective’s Praise-feature.

Summary

Remember: it’s more important to give feedback than to make it perfect. So first, make sure you’re actually giving feedback. Second, focus on action and effort, not abilities and traits. Third, ensure there is a healthy balance between positive feedback and discussion about problems. Finally, make sure your feedback is given directly to the recipient, and then feel free to give in on positive gossip.

Check out Teamspective to help your team give and get better feedback. Register for free at https://app.teamspective.com

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