I was walking into my monthly coaching session and I felt my blood pressure rising. It happens every month. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I always looked forward to these sessions because I knew, like it or not, I would have the chance to hear what I was doing wrong and how I needed to refocus my attention and energy to be maximized for the company. At this company, we always preached that we were a feedback culture, one geared towards improvement, a place where you will inevitably improve. But I always wondered if there was a more effective way to encourage improvement and growth without causing such discomfort. It seemed the unspoken cultural mantra was “No pain. No gain.” After a while, I realized I didn’t have the energy for this culture anymore.
This approach, focusing on deficits and weaknesses for improvement, is the preferred method of feedback for most companies. The intentions are to improve personal and professional performance, but instead we are chipping away at the culture, the personal engagement, and unfortunately, employee confidence in their ability to make positive change.
Offering constructive criticism or feedback for change and improvement shouldn’t go away altogether – both forms of feedback are important – but we people managers need to listen to the research about how to deliver this for maximum effectiveness. According to a recent study by Harvard Business Review, there is a desired ratio of positive to negative feedback when trying to improve performance. According to the article, “The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments (“I agree with that,” for instance, or “That’s a terrific idea”) to negative comments (“I don’t agree with you” “We shouldn’t even consider doing that”) that the participants made to one another. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one).
I believe our clients are sold on the notion that positive feedback given regularly and authentically is the key to personal, organizational, and cultural success. But old habits are hard to break. I can’t tell you how often I get this question: “Can we add a constructive criticism piece to this platform?” So it seems that people believe in positive feedback but not as much as they believe in the power of constructive criticism, or negative feedback (let’s call it what it is). Take note of the research, trust that people have an innate desire to grow, get better, and listen to what is being asked of them. And the path to better results and a happier workforce is paved with praise.
As the author of the article points out, “Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.”