The power of focusing on positive feedback

The power of focusing on positive feedback

What if standard ideas about how to give feedback are simply wrong? We've been thinking about how to radically flip the standard approach.

Most conversations around feedback recommend giving feedback as some positive points mixed with some areas for development. Or even downright negative observations.

But my colleague Anne Dhir and I would like to put forward the idea that focusing primarily on people’s strengths allows them to work from a place of power, making for better, happier teams.

Let’s look into it.

Mixing good and bad feedback

When we talk about giving feedback, most of us have been taught these two approaches:

  • the ‘shit sandwich’: 1 positive + 1 negative + 1 positive
  • 2 stars and a wish: 2 positives and a something you need to improve

It sounds balanced and feels kind.

But in practice people receiving feedback like this tend to focus on the negative and development areas. It’s sometimes as if that’s all they’ve really heard.

If we focus on our weaknesses, we are all working from a position of ‘lacking’.

If we focus on strengths, we can pair up with people who have strengths in the areas where we have weaknesses, and the whole team is stronger for it.

We need to be aware of our weaknesses because we can learn to work around, or with them.

There might be weaknesses that you might never be able to address, and you’ll always need support with. And that’s OK.

Listening to positive feedback is hard.

Some people lap it up, print it, frame it and put it up on the wall. For others, it’s uncomfortable. We squirm and move the conversation on.

That means we don’t spend enough time deepening our understanding of our strengths, and how we could expand them.

How to practice receiving and giving positive feedback

Here are 5 things people might do in response to positive feedback, starting with the least helpful:

  1. Brush it off by focusing on what they need to improve.
  2. Nod awkwardly.
  3. Pause and breathe.
  4. Reframe it as if it were feedback for someone else or the team.
  5. Observe their reactions and recognise their emotions and feelings.

With practice you might be able to skip 1 and 2 and start with number 3.

Next, let’s have 5 things you might say in response to positive feedback:

  1. "Thank you, I appreciate that.”
  2. “I find getting positive feedback awkward so bear with me while I practice taking it on.”
  3. “Can you describe exactly what I did or said that prompted the positive feedback?”
  4. “That’s brilliant, I’m really pleased that something I have done has been well received.”
  5. “I’ll think about our conversation and use it to reflect on how I can take on your feedback.”

You can train yourself to say things like this instead of “Oh, it was nothing!” or “Really? I thought I was terrible.”

And, finally, here are 5 ways you can give positive feedback that make it easier for people to accept:

  1. Don’t mix positive and negative feedback in the same conversation with people who find it hard to listen to the positive.
  2. Describe what the person has done that prompted your feedback: what you heard, read or observed, and why it is good.
  3. Foster psychological safety in your work environment to allow people to embrace positive feedback.
  4. Ask people how they want to get feedback: publicly or privately; written or verbal; in the moment, or with time to digest.
  5. Ask them who you should share the feedback with so that the contribution is considered in their performance review.

Feedback is how we manage our culture

It’s all and well to have a culture statement and values on your website. What matters is how they are implemented in practice.

Giving feedback, allowing people to bring the best of themselves, and supporting people to keep developing their strengths, is a vital part of bringing values to life.

To help you, we’ve put together a tool to help collate feedback and map it to company values, which Anne has shared on LinkedIn.

Read more