How to Deliver Effective Positive Feedback in the Workplace

Businessman shaking hands with coworker
••• GettyImages/PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

Feedback is a manager's power tool to support behavioral change or reinforce positive behavior in the workplace. And while constructive or negative feedback earns most of the discussion time in training programs and leadership materials, positive feedback is every bit as important. 

In two earlier posts: Six Tips to Help You Prepare for Difficult Conversations, and Ten Tips to Help You Conduct Difficult Conversations, I offered a framework to prepare for and conduct discussions dealing with the challenging or negative behaviors. In this article, I build on that framework but focus on how to deliver the effective, positive feedback so critical for reinforcing the right behaviors in the workplace. 

Positive Feedback in Action:

Imagine that you had just wrapped up a presentation to the executives in your organization, and your manager approached you in the hallway, shook your hand and said, "Great job!" While I suspect all of us would appreciate the accolade, how does that particular piece of feedback prepare you to repeat your great presentation in the future? It does not.  

Positive feedback, much like the constructive type, must be specific and behavioral in nature to be effective. The positive comment feels good, but it does not leave you better able to repeat the positive performance in the future, just as a negative comment: "You sure messed up that presentation," would not tell you what you did wrong. Both giver and receiver benefit by getting specific with feedback. 

Now consider the same presentation to the executives as described above, but alter the manager's feedback to you just a bit. "Great job on that presentation today. Your competitive analysis was extremely informative, and your recommendations were backed with facts. The executive team appreciated your hard work to pull the material together and loved your enthusiasm for the initiative." What a difference between the two feedback scenarios

In the first example, you were left to wonder what it was that impressed the executives. In the second, you know that your competitive analysis, your thorough, fact-based recommendations and your passion for the topic all played a part in your success with the presentation. While you might still want to drill into the specifics of what worked, you are much better armed to repeat all of the positive behaviors in future presentations. 

Simple Rules for Delivering Effective Positive Feedback:

  • Always deliver feedback as close in time to the occurrence of the positive behavior as possible. 
  • Be specific as outlined in the examples above. The more specific you are as the giver, the better the opportunity for the receiver to understand what behaviors to repeat in the future. 
  • Ideally, link the positive behavior to the business results. 
  • Unlike almost all constructive (negative) feedback discussions, positive feedback can be delivered in public, although there are some issues to watch out for as outlined below. 

    Avoiding Positive Feedback Pitfalls:

    I once received an email from a reader of my blog who asked the following question: "I am the owner of a business and have had pretty much the same team of managers for almost ten years. I have never given them any positive feedback and thought that I should start. Do you have any advice for me, so they don't think I am dying?" 

    I recall sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. While it is easy to abuse positive feedback by offering it for trivial issues, I had rarely encountered a person who never offered a positive comment or note to employees. My advice was to start slow, use the rules outlined above, and keep giving it over the coming weeks and eventually the employees will quit wondering what's wrong with you and simply start appreciating your positive feedback! 

    For all of us, there are some common mistakes to avoid. These include:

    1. Not giving it. If you need a rule of thumb, your positive feedback should outweigh your constructive feedback by at least a 3 to 1 ratio. 
    2. Giving positive feedback for trivial issues. "Great job making the coffee today!" and other trivial comments are likely to generate eye rolls and be perceived as disingenuous by your team members. Offer positive feedback when you see noteworthy positive behaviors, and you want to reinforce those in the workplace. 
    3. Saving up all of the praise for the annual performance review. Both constructive and positive feedback are best served warm. Deliver feedback as close to the behavior as possible. 

      The Bottom Line

      Performance feedback is a leader's power tool. Constructive feedback helps change or eliminate the behaviors that detract from performance, and positive feedback helps reinforce those that strengthen performance. Both are essential for success! Use them carefully and regularly in pursuit of great performance.


      Updated by Art Petty