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Performance
9 Min Read

The Power of Positive Feedback at Work

Genevieve Michaels

Have you heard the legend of Sisyphus, the ancient Greek prince? 

Sisyphus incurred the wrath of Hades, god of the underworld, and was doomed to a horrible fate. Each morning, he would roll an enormous boulder up a mountainside. But before he reached the top, it would slip out of his grasp, and roll back down to where he started. 

That would be frustrating for anyone — to this day, we call endless, unrewarding tasks Sisyphean. To feel fulfilled at work, we need to feel like we’re getting somewhere, whether you’re appeasing an ancient god or a demanding client. 

Research has shown that a sense of progress can be the most powerful workplace motivator — sometimes even more than compensation. 

But how do we know if we’re making progress? One of the most important ways is through positive feedback. 

Positive feedback isn’t just about kind words. It reaffirms that we’re having an impact — that our efforts are paying off. It’s inspiring, motivating, and it shows us where to focus our efforts in the future. 

But not all feedback is created equal. Today, we’ll explain how to give positive feedback that produces better business results, and reinforces behaviors that help your organization. 

What is positive feedback? 

On the surface, positive feedback is a simple concept.

Giving positive feedback at work means telling someone they did a good job, exceeded expectations, or produced great results — that they exhibited good workplace behavior. 

But there’s so much more to positive feedback than words of praise. 

When it’s done right, feedback in the workplace is a form of positive reinforcement. By letting team members know when they’ve done well, you encourage more of that desired behavior and those good results in the future. 

Positive reinforcement has its roots in operant learning theory. Created by psychologist B.F. Skinner, this theory posits that rewarding good behavior helps people learn more quickly, improve their skills, and feel more motivated. 

Basically, rewarding people makes work more rewarding. Who would have guessed?!

In this article, we’ll focus on positive verbal feedback. But there are other ways to recognize employees, too. Positive feedback at work can be even more meaningful when combined with other gestures of appreciation.

If you’re looking for ways to make employees feel valued, we’ve shared plenty of ideas.

The power of positive feedback in the workplace

Positive feedback makes people feel good — and that’s a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

But if it’s approached properly, positive feedback can do so much more than make someone’s day. 

Research shows us that positive feedback in the workplace can boost performance, improve relationships, and help create incredible business results. 

Here are a few notable findings: 

  • In a study of students, those who got both positive and negative feedback scored a full letter grade higher than those who received negative feedback alone
  • Giving employees positive feedback can produce more innovation, more independence, and a willingness to improve on established processes
  • Frequent positive feedback has been found to improve how employees see the person sharing it 
  • Only 1% of workers who got positive feedback reported feeling actively disengaged 

How to give effective positive feedback

Telling someone they’ve done a good job is powerful. Giving a compliment is easy — but if you want to use feedback as positive reinforcement in the workplace, it can be surprisingly hard to get right. 

Here are a few tips on giving targeted, strategic, and effective feedback that leads to even more positive, high-impact results. 

Give feedback in private or public 

Unlike negative or constructive feedback, positive feedback doesn’t need to be given one-on-one. Some people love the recognition of receiving positive feedback in front of colleagues or peers! 

However, others may find it stressful or embarrassing to get any feedback publicly. Leaders and managers should use their discretion, and keep the individual in mind when deciding on their approach. 

Delivery matters

Everyone knows to watch their tone and body language when they’re giving negative feedback. But nonverbal cues matter when giving positive feedback, too. In fact, they’re just as important as the feedback itself. 

One study found that when positive feedback was delivered with negative nonverbal cues, such as a frowning expression, it was actually more upsetting for recipients than negative feedback delivered in a positive way. 

And controlling your delivery is trickier than you might think — the same study found that participants weren’t able to consciously modify their feedback delivery at all. 

Be mindful of nonverbal cues like facial expression, body language, and tone. Even if you’re tired, distracted, or irritated by something else when giving feedback at work, the recipient might interpret it as insincerity or a condescending attitude. 

Be specific and actionable

Vague, congratulatory feedback (‘you’re awesome!’) doesn’t help people improve their performance. 

To keep positive feedback useful, be as specific as possible. What actual behaviors are you praising, and why? What tangible outcomes did they create? 

After you describe the praiseworthy behavior, end by focusing on the future. How and why can the person replicate, or even build on, that action next time.

Keep it appropriate

Don’t overuse positive feedback, and don’t exaggerate or gush over minor achievements. Not only can doing so make positive feedback less powerful, it can seem insincere, and make people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. 

It’s especially important to make sure you’re giving feedback on actions and behaviors, not who the person is. Try saying something like ‘you explained that so clearly,’ not ‘you’re such a great communicator.’

Pair positive and negative feedback (sometimes)

The ‘compliment sandwich’ is a proven way to make constructive feedback easier to handle — but it’s not always the right technique. 

Every time you deliver feedback, carefully assess the situation. Is your priority to soften the experience for the recipient, or is to make sure they take the feedback to heart? 

One study found that delivering positive (or negative) feedback on its own had a stronger impact on future performance. But pairing positive and negative feedback made it less emotionally stressful for the recipient to hear.

Two frameworks for positive feedback 

For an easy way to put these tips into action, try one of these ready-made frameworks.

Using a formula like this can really help you structure your feedback and make sure it’s as helpful as possible. It can be an especially helpful guideline if you’re new to providing feedback, or you’re still working on your skills. 

SBI feedback model

This basic model is useful for all kinds of feedback, negative or positive. Helpful feedback should always include these three elements, even if you’re just quickly recognizing someone’s great work. 

  • Situation: Set the scene so you and the recipient are on the same page. What general situation are you giving feedback on? 
    • Example: “I wanted to mention what a great job you did at this morning’s meeting.” 
  • Behavior: Speaking objectively, describe the recipient’s actions. What did they do that was so great? 
    • Example: “You guided the client through every aspect of our design proposal clearly and intuitively. You described not only each design choice, but why we made them and how it ties back to their brand identity.”
  • Impact: What made the behavior good? How did it impact the situation, and what results did it have? 
    • Example: “You really showed our design at its best. I noticed how few follow up questions the client had – they understood our vision, and they were excited to get into the next step of the process!”

IDEA feedback model

If you want to provide a more in-depth feedback session, this is a good framework to use. The basic components are the same, but it ends by discussing action and looking towards the future. 

  • Identify: Start by telling the recipient what you’d like to discuss. What situation or are you giving feedback on?
    • Example: “Thanks for meeting with me. I want to start by thanking you for how you handled yesterday’s merger announcement.”
  • Describe: Go over the situation, and the recipient’s conduct. Be neutral and objective, almost as if you’re describing it to someone who wasn’t there. 
    • Example: “That news was overwhelming to a lot of people, and Jia was visibly upset. Right away, you gave her words of support, and you asked me questions to clarify what would happen, without alarming anyone further.” 
  • Encourage: Now, you can tell them how awesome that was! What did it mean to you? How did it improve the situation? 
    • Example: “You really helped to de-escalate the energy in the room. I was able to run through the rest of the agenda more easily, because our team was reassured that our work would not change.”
  • Action: End by explaining how the person can continue or scale up that action next time. 
    • Example: “I think that was a great example of why it’s important to be willing to speak up in meetings. I think others were wondering about your questions, too, and I want to encourage you to voice your thoughts like that any time.” 

Make positive feedback part of your process

Positive feedback is a crucial way to make sure everyone on your team is satisfied, engaged, and doing their best work. 

But giving useful feedback regularly is no easy task. There’s a huge amount of care, energy, and administrative labor that goes into making sure all your people consistently get the feedback and affirmation they need.

At 15Five, we make giving positive feedback easy through High Fives. High Fives empower employees at all levels to appreciate teammates by sharing the impact that they’ve had. Hashtags can be used to align actions to company values, making High Fives a great way to resurface your organization’s values and keep them top of mind. 

Positive feedback  works best when it is embedded in the company culture as part of a comprehensive performance management strategy — and our High Fives feature integrates seamlessly with our other features and services that give your recognition of employee efforts lasting impact.

Want to learn more? Reach out to us with questions or book a 15Five demo today.