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!

What Does Your Personal Brand SOUND Like?

I just read a great article from Entrepreneur, as shared here, called “7 Signs Your Personal Brand Needs Work.” All seven signs, and the suggestions offered to resolve each, are insightful and important – I recommend reading the article for yourself. But as is common in such analyses, there is one critical factor for establishing your ideal personal brand that is once again missing from the discussion.

Topics such as being consistent with your brand messaging or being visible are extremely important, but tend to be addressed as if people will only get to know you on paper – or on screen. The focus is on the content or text of the message, if all of your social media pages make the same impression, and if you emphasize your vision for the future or are stuck touting past achievements. But what happens when you’re not just writing a Tweet, FaceBook post, blog, or e-mail?

In other words, what happens to that brand messaging when you’re talking to someone, real-time, maybe even (*gasp*) face to face? On a very literal level, what does it sound like when you share your idea, insight and suggestion? Is it as compelling to hear as it is to read?

So many people have terrific ideas and masterful skill sets, but their ability to persuade, compel, and inspire someone just by talking with them simply falls flat. There’s something “missing” in the delivery, which can translate to something missing from their personal brand.

This is the foundation of what I call alignment. Your words and your delivery must be equally strong and compelling, because your words convey your content, and your delivery conveys your intent behind the message. When both parts are reinforcing the same message at the same time, there is credibility to the whole message, and as a result, the credibility reflects back to you.

What do I mean by content vs. intent? Simple. The contents of your message, i.e. what you actually say and the words you use to do so, give the “official” meaning and purpose. The intent, in contrast, is your motivation and feeling behind why you’re saying it. For example, if you bump into someone, and say, “Oh, sorry…” in theory, that’s the right thing to do and should set things right again. However, there’s a huge difference between if you hurriedly mumble, “Oh… sorry…” as you hustle past, vs. if you exclaim, “Oh! Sorry!” and pause to ensure that the other person is okay, before heading off.

In the first way, your perfunctory apology (your content) comes across as recognizing that you’re supposed to apologize so as not to be considered rude, but not like you actually feel sorry or care about the other person at all, despite your claim of being sorry. You’re just saying “Sorry” because you feel like you have to (your intent.) The actual words don’t match the way they sound (or look based on your body language.) Your words (the content) claim to be sorry, but your message is out of alignment. At best, there’s a bare minimum of improvement in how I think of you if you give me that apology, compared to if you bump into me and then completely fail to acknowledge my existence.

The second delivery, however, seems so much more heartfelt, because your words and your delivery were in alignment. Once again, your words (content) claim to be contrite, but this time I believe that it was heartfelt, that you actually ARE sorry and genuinely want to apologize (intent). You stop to make eye contact with me, and the sound of your apology conveys much more sincerity and integrity.

So where does this tie into your brand?

Lots of people claim that they can speak well when they have to give a big presentation or are otherwise in the spotlight, and this shows what you are capable of when you believe the stakes are high enough to warrant that kind of focus and effort. But as far as I’m concerned, your reputation is what happens in the moments when you’re NOT trying; all those little moments when you’re not in the spotlight.

For example, when you think about who you want on your sales or project team, which of the following are you likely to choose (assuming equal technical expertise and quantity of participation):

  1. The person who often mumbles and seems to speak half-heartedly when contributing most meetings and calls, but can “turn it on” for formal presentations and high-stakes client or leadership meetings
  2. The person who always sounds focused and engaged when contributing in meetings and calls, and is equally engaged and engaging in high-stakes meetings

This may seem like a rhetorical question: after all, why would anyone opt for someone who only seems truly engaged part of the time, if – all else being equal – you could work with someone who seemed truly on board all of the time? Yet for as obvious as the choice may seem, when you look at your own participation in generic weekly meetings, for example, what does your participation sound like? Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you always speak loudly enough to ensure that all people can hear?
  • If there’s one or more people on conference call lines when the rest of the group is present in the same physical room, do you proactively work to ensure that they can hear everyone’s contributions, consistently?
  • Do you inflect lots of up-speak when you talk where it sounds like you’re constantly implying lots of questions and requests for validation into your speech even when you’re not?
  • Do you speak so quickly that you tend to slur some words together or mumble, making people have to ask you to repeat what you’ve said?
  • Do you give and receive constructive feedback in an antagonistic or defensive manner, or shy away from it completely?
  • Do you speak in an unnecessarily low voice without enough breath support so that your voice sounds gravelly or creaky, and you seem disinterested, tired, or not confident?

The challenge is that most of us are painfully unaware of our default speech style. We may know how we think we come across, but often what we see and hear in our minds is very different from how other people experience us. The brand and reputation that we think we are building for ourselves is very different from the reality of the brand reputation we’re becoming known for.

This is why it’s critical to gain an awareness of what your “default” speech style is like in these contexts, because for the most part, that’s what people will remember and what they’ll use to form their evaluation of your credibility and leadership, not what you can do in the rare instances when you absolutely have to. After all, what’s more likely: that they frame their opinions based on the exception, or the “rule”?

When in doubt, remember: That “rule” is at the foundation of your brand.

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

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