Is positive feedback harder to give than negative feedback?

I’m sure you’re familiar with that unpleasant feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you have to give someone negative feedback. You don’t want any drama and you try to avoid conflict. You don’t want to hurt their feelings or anger them. You don’t want them to get defensive and you don’t want to have to defend yourself in the process, but eventually you have to find a way to tell them that there are errors in the report and it needs to be redone, that they’ve been late for the third time, or that the promotion is being given to someone else.

While it may not be surprising that, according to a recent HBR study, 21% of people will avoid giving negative feedback to direct reports, the same study revealed that 37% of people also don’t give positive feedback! At that point, the question becomes: Is it actually harder to give praise than critique?

The article proposes a variety of reasons why people often don’t give positivefeedback, ranging from being “too busy” and forgetting, to feeling like a boss should be tough, or that giving praise was a sign of weakness. Some people may consciously or subconsciously believe that it’s essential to point out mistakes in order to avoid or fix major problems, but that positive recognition is optional and/or not important.

Most intriguing to me, however, was the idea that some people don’t give positive feedback because they don’t know how. So from here, let’s look at three simple strategies for giving clear and effective positive feedback.

1. K.I.S.S.
No, I’m not suggesting you do anything that will warrant a call from HR. Most of you are probably familiar with the age-old acronym K.I.S.S., or “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Praise doesn’t need to be emotional, gushy, effusive or melodramatic. People just like to know – especially from you “tough graders” out there – that they have met your standards, produced high-quality work, or been successful at completing a difficult project on time and under budget.

Most importantly, they probably already know this, but want to know that you recognize that effort or achievement. They know you will catch any mistake; make it equally clear that you watch like a hawk to “catch” them succeeding, too. It shows solidarity, lets them know that you’re on the same team, and promotes a sense of confidence and security, knowing that the boss is looking out for them.

At that point, simple comments like, “Thanks for getting that piece back to me so quickly,” “The layout looks terrific, nice job,” or “Looks like you got everything back up to date, much better” are all that is needed to let people know where they stand. It also provides a sense of closure, which helps keep them from worrying that there may be more bad news to come, so they can comfortably shift their full attention to the next task on the list.

2. Be Specific
Praise is much more powerful when it references something specific. Generic comments like “good job,” while better than nothing, don’t tell the person what it is that you like about it, and can often feel perfunctory and insincere. Does it pertain to the speed in which they completed the job? The depth of analysis? Or just the fact that they closed the deal? Whatever it is, referencing that factor helps them to understand what is most important to you and encourages them to focus future efforts on achieving similar outcomes.

Even if it is just following up on something for which you had previously given negative feedback, acknowledge that the specific problem was fixed to appropriate standards and what positive outcome it promotes, e.g., “This new layout is much cleaner, and the image really pops; the client is going to love it.”

3. Look in the Mirror

If you’re really stuck for how to give praise, ask yourself, if you had done that work, how would you want to be appreciated? Maybe, to the HBR article’s point, you’re not used to giving positive feedback as a boss because you aren’t used to getting it from a boss. I’m not saying your boss should have thrown a party every time you did your job successfully, but think back to a time when you felt like at least a little appreciation would have been nice. Be the boss you wish you’d had, and offer the word of praise that would have been meaningful to you.

Sometimes the best place to start is with a simple word of thanks and recognition of the other person’s effort. “Thanks for pushing through the last week of late nights to make sure we got the issue out on time, I’m sure everyone’s exhausted,” or “Thanks for jumping in to lend a hand on that project; I know your plate was already full” is all people need to hear.

Don’t worry that offering praise will make it seem like you’re “going soft” or that people will slack off once they think you’re happy. On the contrary, for many people, praise is actually a motivator. Success begets success, and feelings of success beget more behaviors of success.

What’s critical to understand is that when people feel like they receive sufficient positive feedback, it makes them more open to hearing and accepting negative feedback from the same person. This is because they know that the boss is fair and clear, and that all feedback, whether positive or negative, is honest and comes from the heart.

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Do you have trouble giving feedback, whether positive or negative? Or do you have other questions or feedback about this issue? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!

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