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Negative Feedback Dominates Positive Feedback at Work

negative feedback

The way others see us can be a mystery. The daily work you perform can inspire others without your knowledge. Consider the following story about a teacher's job:

Thanksgiving Day was near. The first-grade teacher gave her class a fun assignment to draw a picture of something they were thankful for.

Most of the class might be considered poor, but still, many would celebrate the holiday with turkey and other traditional goodies of the season. These, the teacher thought, would be the subjects of most of her student's art. And they were.

But Douglas made a different kind of picture. Douglas was a different kind of boy and the teacher's true child of misery, frail and unhappy. As other children played at recess, Douglas was likely to stand close by her side. One could only guess at the pain Douglas felt behind those sad eyes.

Yes, his picture was different. When asked to draw a picture of something he was thankful for, he drew a hand. Nothing else. Just an empty hand.

His abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? One child guessed it was a farmer's hand because farmers raise turkeys. Another suggested a police officer because the police protect and care for people. Still, others thought it was the hand of God, for God feeds us. And so the discussion went — until the teacher almost forgot the young artist himself.

When the children had gone on to other assignments, she paused at Douglas' desk, bent down, and asked him whose hand it was.

The little boy looked away and muttered. It's yours, teacher.

She recalled the times she had taken his hand and walked with him here or there, as she had the other students. How often had she said, Take my hand, Douglas, Let's go outside. Or, Let me show you how to hold your pencil. Or, Let's do this together. Douglas was most thankful for his teacher's hand.

Brushing aside a tear, she went on with her work.

You are always having an impact on those around you. At the same time, we often neglect to tell others how we feel about their presence in our lives. As you open the wrapper in 2022, I encourage you to be like this little boy. Let others know how they impact you and show sincere appreciation for the deeds they may take for granted. 

I teach supervisors and managers to overcome the awkwardness that accompanies positive feedback. Your people are starving for affirmation from you about the work they perform on your behalf. Make sure they know what you appreciate about their work.

There is a common misconception that positive feedback will lead to less-than-optimal performance. In a twisted reality, some people attending my classes have expressed a reluctance to give positive feedback thinking people will stop performing. Following are six reasons your supervisors are avoiding positive feedback:

  1. It makes them feel uncomfortable. Positive feedback can make you feel weird, depending on how you grew up. Even though supervisors are more than capable of having the conversation, this requires stepping up and being courageous even when they are worried about how to say what they know needs saying.
  2. Do not know how. Yes, training helps, and there is a lack of belief about whether giving feedback works, and this belief underpins the lack of motivation to find out the "how-to".
  3. Think it will demotivate people. When under pressure, supervisors may believe a kind word will dull the sense of urgency for the work. The opposite is true in most cases.
  4. Do not make time. I teach supervisors to budget time to spend with each direct report every day. This activity is not wasted or empty time; it is time to lead individuals on the team.
  5. Afraid of emotions. This fear is a skills issue that is easy to address. Unfortunately, these supervisors fail to see the dramatic and positive impact developmental feedback has on results.
  6. Used to be my peer. Supervisors struggle because they have not established or redefined the boundaries of the relationship and clarified their expectations.

Being able to give team members feedback is an essential skill for supervisors. The one thing that stops supervisors from giving feedback is themselves. Team performance improves when you develop this skill.

A recent study of over eight thousand leaders revealed that 56% had a stronger preference for giving negative feedback, 31% preferred giving positive feedback, and 12% were equal in their choice. Negative feedback dominates positive feedback in the workplace.

If you want to improve retention and performance in the workplace, this is the opportunity to impact your team immediately. More job changes are ahead, with the "great resignation" building momentum and the end of the pandemic in sight. Fear that has been paralyzing some workers to remain in current roles will dissipate as covid enters the endemic phase. I predict more people will move to a new job this year. What are you doing to keep them?