When I was a young account executive, the feedback I got on every annual review was, “You give too much positive feedback. You need to balance it with constructive feedback, too.”

I never really understood that. Sure, if someone needed some help with something or things were going poorly, constructive feedback was necessary and most often encouraged by the recipient.

But to give constructive feedback every time I gave positive feedback? Come on!

But it was on every, single review for years. I’m great at telling you all the time what you’re doing well and terrible at searching for things you’re not doing well.

Turns out, I was right! R-I-G-H-T. Right!

Giving positive feedback boosts morale, instills confidence, and motivates employees to do their best. It also helps to retain great people who will move the business forward. Plus, it’s lots more fun to work in an organization where people appreciate you and recognize the work you’re doing.

Not to say we need to do away with constructive feedback. Not at all. But there also is no reason to make it up, just to provide the good and the bad every time you want to tell someone they’re doing a great job.

Positive Feedback Helps Improve Morale

A survey by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 80% of HR leaders work at organizations that have an employee recognition program. Of those leaders, 89% reported their recognition program helped improve the overall employee experience, 86% said it improved employee relationships, and 84% said it improved employee engagement.

I mean, duh. Of course people like to be recognized and rewarded for their work. This is the entire premise behind Daniel Pink’s book, Drive.

He says that money does not motivate people, but having a purpose does. For instance, if you were told you could make a million dollars a year in salary to sit in the middle of an empty warehouse on a folding chair and sit and stare at the wall for eight hours a day, would you do it?

Many of us joke that for that kind of money, we could do anything, but I guarantee most of us would not make it a week. I wouldn’t make it a day. Eight hours would feel like 100 hours. No amount of money in the world is worth that.

We Need to Have Purpose

Likewise, those of you who are cyclists will understand this. When riding your bike, there are seven zones. Zone 1 is for warmup and cooldown and zone 7 is for sprints and races. Everything in between has a purpose, and endurance athletes spend most of their time in zones 2 and 3.

Riding in zone 2 is the pace you ride for lots of mileage or many hours—five to six hours or 100 or more miles. But it can be booooooring as all get out. Sure, it’s easy and yes, you can ride for a long time at that pace, but it’s easy enough that it seems to drag. 

If someone told me they’d pay me a billion dollars to ride in zone 2 for the rest of my life, I would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I would rather not ride my bike than only do zone 2 rides.

But Provide It Only When It’s Deserved

And that’s the point. People want to have a purpose. They want to strive toward something—and they want to be recognized for the good they are putting out into the world via their work, their families, their communities, and their friends (and for being able to crush a zone 7 ride once a week or so). 

You can make a difference in helping your colleagues feel appreciated, whether you’re the boss, at the middle of your career, or just starting out.

But there is a cautionary tale when it comes to positive feedback: don’t do it just because you were told it’s what motivates people. We use a daily standup bot in Slack as a replacement for having another meeting on the calendar. It drives me crazy that once a week it will ping me and say, “Time to give some kudos!”

Excuse me, robot. I give kudos all on my own. I don’t need you to tell me it’s time, nor does it need to be forced. It won’t be appreciated if it’s forced or if people figure out a robot is telling you when to do it.

Be Specific So It’s Valuable

Instead, look for opportunities to give kudos. Listen to what your colleagues are saying about one another (hopefully it’s only good) and provide that kind of feedback. While almost no one likes to hear, “So and so was saying nasty things about you,” we do love to hear, ‘I was in a meeting on Monday with CEO and COO and they were talking about what a great job you did writing our latest eBook. They thought it was well thought out and 100% applicable to our target audience.”

Ahhhhh. Doesn’t that feel good? 

It’s specific, it’s valuable, and it came from the top (in this case, but could also come from peers). And it doesn’t need to be accompanied with constructive feedback. It’s positive and it can stand all on its own.

Link Positive Behavior to Business Results

When I started my agency and social media was becoming a thing, a client believed it would hit the business world and he wanted his team to use it. But no one wanted to add one more thing to their overflowing task lists.

So we created a contest. It had different levels: create an account, share one piece of company news, grow your following, have a conversation, and so on. And still, it failed.

I remember sitting in the client’s office while we brainstormed ideas to get them involved. What we decided to do was ask each of them for one thing they really wanted but didn’t want to spend their own money on.

For one person, it was to dine in a fancy restaurant with his wife. Another person wanted an expensive hair straightener. Another wanted a Starbucks gift card to cover her daily habit.

And so the contest was re-launched. And guess what? It worked! Because we rewarded them with things they individually wanted, they were more motivated to do the work. Though we no longer work with that client, I understand that program is still in place. It’s evolved to be more about employee appreciation than social media use, but they still use it!

The reason it worked so well is we linked the positive behavior to business results. Back then, it was all about increasing followers and building engagement so that’s what we rewarded. And we made it personal to motivate them. 

Notice we didn’t just hand out bonuses, which is what most companies are inclined to do. If we gave money, it was in the form of a gift card that they could spend on something they wouldn’t buy themselves. That’s because, as we know from the book Drive, people are not motivated by money. They’ll be excited at first, but that lasts only a week or two. Give them something they wouldn’t buy for themselves, though, and you’ve created a memory.

Understand Individual Needs

A couple of other things to think about when delivering feedback—and these work for both positive and constructive. Deliver the feedback as soon as you can after you notice their achievement. Positive feedback always is better delivered when it’s in front of others. I like to do it during weekly team meetings so everyone gets to celebrate the person. And be specific and detailed. 

One more thing to note: some people may not enjoy being praised in front of their colleagues so always be sure to ask. While most people enjoy the spotlight, there are some who do not. So before you go showering them with praise, ask them what they prefer.

And, lastly, read the book, Thanks for the Feedback. While it’s written to help employees ask for feedback—especially the critical kind—it will give you ideas on how to improve your feedback loop. It looks at the intersection between our wanting to be accepted as we are and wanting to learn and grow and it helps you understand that even positive feedback can throw people off. 

Don’t be afraid to give positive feedback. Don’t let a negative boss tell you you’re giving too much positive feedback. And do figure out what motivates your team so the feedback you provide is well-internalized with curiosity and grace.

Brainstorm Positive Feedback Tactics

You’re such a good reader to make it all the way through this article that I’d like to give you a gift. If you’re not already part of the thriving, interesting, and fun Spin Sucks Community, the invitation is open and free.

It’s a community full of crazy smart professionals. It’s free, it’s fun, it’s smart…and you might just learn a thing or two from your peers. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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