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Talk is Cheap

The challenge of positive feedback

In my work, I’m often asked to help clients prepare to give challenging feedback. I’m always inspired by the effort they put into making sure their audience has the opportunity to grow. It’s clear they want them to get value out of the conversation, even if it’s going to be tough. That’s because they, like most of us, know these discussions can be transformative when conducted well, and crushing when they’re not. It’s logical then, that great care is taken when discussing areas for improvement. But when it comes to giving purely positive feedback, I’ve found that the same level of thoughtfulness and preparation isn’t present. It’s here I’ve noted that we tend to take shortcuts and miss the opportunity to properly acknowledge excellence. We end up giving positive feedback that lacks intention, substance and clarity, and as a result, run the risk of eroding our relationships.

Even when it’s positive, talk is cheap without substance

 Giving tough feedback can be nerve wracking and by comparison offering the positive seems pretty easy. So, because it seems light, it’s treated lightly, and this can leave our audience feeling jilted. Positive feedback that lacks depth can undercut our credibility and damage the perception of our authenticity. This impacts our relationships because, even when it’s positive, talk is cheap without substance. So, when our audience perceives that our positive feedback has no depth, our ability to truly connect with them is diminished.

I’ll give you an example: Consider the phrase, “That’s a great piece of work.” At first blush that sounds like excellent feedback, when really, it’s just “good work” repackaged in a way that sounds deep. It also offers no real value and fails to identify what was done, why it matters or how it made any difference. You can imagine the cynical response that would eventually result if this feedback was used over and over with the same team. As I discussed in my last article, that’s exactly what had happened in an organization with this specific phrase. The first-time people heard it, it was powerful and felt like they had received something meaningful, but over time it turned into a bitter joke among the staff. It actually became demotivating to hear because the team felt like it was an automatic response to any effort. So, while it sounded thoughtful, it rang with indifference.

Making sure it has value

 I’ve come to realize just how much people value positive feedback when they’ve earned it and it’s given skillfully. I believe it rewards and inspires them in a way that goes far beyond anything monetary compensation can offer. I’ve also witnessed scenarios, similar to the one above, unfold many times when leaders fail to properly recognize excellence. So, this means we need to treat positive feedback as the gift it is and make sure it has value. To achieve this, I have three suggestions:

  1. Know when to thank our audience and when to give positive feedback.
    There’s a difference between thanking people and giving them positive feedback, and it’s important to distinguish between the two. The first shows an appreciation for effort, the second shows appreciation for the quality of the effort, the outcome or for improvement. For example, if our audience is getting things done, and even putting in extra effort, then that’s the place for a “Thank you.” This is an acknowledgement of their hard work, which is a good practice to engage in. Conversely, if our audience demonstrates high-performance, outstanding results or professional growth, such as improving on past performance, then this is the place for positive feedback. In such cases it’s not enough to simply thank our audience, we must also offer recognition for the quality of the effort.
  2. Give positive feedback when it’s earned, not to boost emotions.
    If we use positive feedback to simply boost our audience’s emotions, and not recognize excellence, then we’re setting everyone up for disappointment. Sometimes unearned positive feedback is used as a shortcut to connect with others, and to help them feel good in the moment. However, this approach is ineffective in the long-run because when it is cheaply given, then it will become cheaply valued. So, the only time to use positive feedback is when it’s earned.
  3. Speak with intention, substance and clarity.
    At this point you may be asking, “What, am I supposed to take the time to think through every little piece of positive feedback I want to give?” The answer is yes. If it isn’t worth the time it takes to think it through, then it’s not worth giving. Through my work I’ve seen many examples of job dissatisfaction that’s tied directly to a perceived lack of positive feedback from leadership. In many of these cases, employees felt under-valued because they believed they hadn’t received positive feedback for their good work. Yet, when interviewed, their leaders almost always believed that they had given it abundantly. In many of these situations, these leaders were right. The feedback had been given, but they had taken shortcuts in giving it. This resulted in feedback that was off-the-cuff, surface-level and vague and unclear. Thus, this positive feedback went unheard.

Identifying the What-Why-How

To offer our audience positive feedback that has value, I suggest this WHAT-WHY-HOW structure:

  • What: Identify what specifically you are offering feedback on.
    Example: I want to offer some positive feedback for the growth I’ve seen in your relationship-building with clients. We discussed this as an area for improvement on your last review, and since then, I’ve noticed you’ve made a big leap. You’re more attentive, responsive and work to establish a much deeper connection. You’re going beyond simply providing a service, and instead are helping our clients define and achieve their goals.
  • Why: Identify why it matters.
    Example: We offer stronger services than our competition, but only we know that. We have a lot of competition, so it’s hard to stand out. Our clients discover our value once they give us a chance to prove our worth, and it’s through strong relationships that we get that chance.
  • How: Identify how this has made a difference for you, the team or the business.
    Example: I care about this company, our team and our clients. It really matters to me when I feel that people are taking our work as seriously as I do. By putting in the effort it took to grow in this area, you’ve shown me how committed you are and that’s made a huge difference to me.Your work in this area has also strengthened our relationships with several clients. By showing them how they can use our services more effectively, you’ve helped them achieve their goals, while also discovering and addressing issues they didn’t know they had. This has had a big impact for us this quarter and led to more work.

Remember: When it comes to positive feedback, there are no shortcuts! When our audience delivers excellence, it’s crucial to put in the effort to truly recognize their achievement. The value they’ll take away from positive feedback, when thoughtfully given, is immense.