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Positive Feedback: Just the Facts

I have to admit that I am one of those people who becomes uncomfortable when someone says positive things about my work. Of course I do want to get feedback to know how I’ve done and I prefer positive feedback over the alternative. For me, I like to hear someone say something specific about the work rather than some comment about me.

For instance I prefer: “I really liked the idea you had for implementing OBM as a participative initiative rather than a management-driven process.”

This is not as good for me: “The idea for implementing OBM as a participative rather than a management-driven initiative was brilliant. You’re very creative.

You’re probably thinking I’m a quibbler and that I should not be looking a gift horse in the mouth. I should take all the positives I can get and shut up. That is probably good advice, but I can’t change my emotional response to flattery, praise, or compliments; they make me squirm.

I prefer positive feedback—a comment about the behavior and its effect, or somebody quoting the numbers. Nobody has to add anything personal or gushy to make me feel good. The behavior speaks for itself.

For instance: “That analogy you used in the first paragraph really helps the reader connect with your point.”

Instead of: “You’re a great writer—so eloquent.”

Describing the behavior and the effect is a particularly good approach if you are not sure whether the person you are providing the feedback likes you or not. Or, if you are sure they don’t like you. If you have a real good relationship with someone, then you have larger margin for error.

The context of positive feedback is very important; your relationship history with the person to whom you’re providing feedback creates the context (a history of interactions that creates expectations). Arguments, disagreements, and a history of verbal squabbles assure that anything you say to that individual is going to be doubtfully received; they are expecting something negative—they are sensitized to every phrase, gesture, tone, and inflection.

Some other examples of positive feedback that are acceptable to employees with whom you have marginal relationships include:

“When you apologized to the customers waiting in line for their inconvenience and thanked them for their patience, two of them came over and told me how much that meant to them.”

“The ladies in purchasing told me that you were the first IT person who treated them like customers. They said you were the first guy from IT who didn’t make them feel dumb.”

“That recommendation you made about purchasing the new torque wrench hit the boss’s hot button. You know, he used to do your job and he always hated those old ones.”

“Your new PowerPoint created a buzz after the meeting. The new VP says that is the first PowerPoint presentation that hasn’t put him to sleep.”

“That walk through the plant you made yesterday really created some positive gossip. You are the first VP of Operations who has made herself accessible—who has taken the time to talk to people.”

“I saw you in here this morning when I got in at 8:00 AM; I guess I can quit worrying about whether we will get that audit in on schedule.”

Maybe You Should Give Them the Finger?

Another technique that is successful requires not talking—that’s right, you can provide positive feedback to anyone without saying a word. You have to see them doing the behavior—that is the only requirement.

If you have followed my advice and make rewards and recognition a participated process, or if you have implemented a Participative OBM initiative, this technique will work extremely well. You begin by deciding on a symbol to use as a positive cue—a sign you can make to anyone that says, “Way to go.”

We are all familiar with the peace sign or the OK circle, signals that are used in for positive communication. Once when I was talking to a supervisor about how he reinforced his employees he said, “I don’t reinforce them, I just give them the facts—except for one guy, and I give him the finger.”

In spite of the immediate conclusion that this must create some problems for the supervisor, I said, “And he likes that.” “He loves it.”

Noticing the look of disbelief on my face the supervisor added, “He’s can't hear, so when he is doing something that I know is good, I just hold up my first finger (of course I had envisioned the middle finger). He gets the message.”

A symbol can be chosen within any business unit and used in the same way. It does not take the place of verbal or written feedback—it is a useful addition to one’s tools for identifying value added activity—quickly.

I know that these tactics seems too simple; what about celebrations, awards, banquets, mugs, t-shirts, announcements in the company newsletter, letters home to their family, and gleeful expressions of emotional gratitude presented in heartfelt and touching ways? Try my technique first. It is inexpensive, personal, relevant, factual, and repeatable.

Avoid describing the person; avoid telling them how thankful you are or how happy this makes you or what a wonderful person they are or how much you appreciate them. Stay away from describing the person and focus on describing the valued-added behavior and its effect.

After you master the art of telling your direct reports, boss, or coworker what they did and what effect it had, then you can try more risky, complex ways to positively reinforce others.

Instead of, “When you told Jim to put on his respirator before he went into that tank, you probably saved his lungs. We didn’t know that gauge was broken,” you might graduate to, “I appreciate you taking the time to tell Jim to put on his respirator before he went into that tank, you probably saved his lungs. We didn’t know that gauge was broken,”

I’m not being facetious. The first statement works well, perhaps the second adds a touch; but, I’m interested in making sure high performers, people trying to improve, and anyone adding value get notified.

When employees ask for recognition, this is what they want—to be acknowledged, to know that the company is aware of their contribution or even more important—their efforts to overcome the limitations of their equipment, unforeseen problems, outdated systems and processes.

How about, “Gloria, I don’t know how you got that monthly report in on time in spite of the fact that you had to cover for Sheila.” Or, “The coaching you’ve given the new guy Steve has brought him up to speed real quick. I know it puts you behind in your job, but you seem to get it done anyway.”

Most employees resent their supervisor for one or both of two things: first, having to work for a supervisor who doesn’t know how to talk to people effectively, and second, having to work your ass off to get around poor performing coworkers, bad systems and other problems and knowing that no one knows or cares.

When you describe what they did and what they had to overcome, you defuse all the pent up frustration.

So, that is the big epiphany; the big insight; the wisdom of the industrial era—if you use my recommendations, I guarantee employee surveys will have positive responses about management and supervision. In addition, attrition will go down and performance will go up.