Positive feedback feels good, but does it work?

December 10, 2018 11:55 am

The end of the year is an excellent time to take stock and set yourself, and your team up for success in the new year. Looking back over the year always makes me realise how much of my success and wellbeing is a result of the actions of others.

At work, it is apparent to me that each member of the Learning Quest team has made many unique and valuable contributions to our shared success, and as we wind down to the last days of the year, I will take the time to share my perspectives with each team member.

I thought this would be a good time to write about why I think positive feedback is important, including the science behind it and how to integrate it into your day-to-day work.

Does positive feedback work?

The short answer is yes, but….

Feedback including positive feedback is a tool for learning. Its purpose is not to create a feeling of happiness but to provide information that the person does not already have.

Human brains are designed to see ourselves from the inside out. In other words, we can see our own intentions, thoughts, feelings etc. Seeing ourselves from the outside in, is a trickier proposition. For this reason, we don’t always have a good sense for our own contributions.

‘Positive’ feedback is not general praise but is a purposeful communication to help the other person learn or perform better. And, it is one of the most underutilised tools for shaping and increasing the desired behaviour.

How to give feedback that works

Praise

  • “Stan, it is great to have you on the team.”
  • “You are a good team player.”

Positive feedback

  • “Stan, in the team meeting this morning, you asked questions that highlighted a practical concern for making this project effective for our client.”
  • “Your questions encouraged others to think about and bring up their concerns. I believe this contributed to a much richer discussion.” Thank you for your contribution.
  • “I am wondering if there is a way to further leverage asking incisive questions to help our client voice their concerns and needs before we move too far down the track – what do you think?”

There are three parts to giving effective feedback: 1) Observations, 2) Impact/Contribution and 3) Application/Extension.

Why feedback works

From a brain perspective, the reason positive feedback works is that you are focusing your attention on the precise thing that matters. You are letting people know precisely what they did that made a difference, the impact it had, and you are starting a discussion on how they can take it to the next level.

We all know that hearing positive feedback feels good. That is because it stimulates a part of the brain associated with pleasure. However, did you know…

Hearing positive feedback is associated with the release of a brain chemical that helps to consolidate memory? Research has found that when given positive feedback, people show better memory/learning. Even more intriguing, it turns out that when people’s attention is focused on using their strengths, they catch more of their mistakes and can self-correct. So positive feedback makes us feel good, and it assists learning.

Tips for making it practical

The easiest way to integrate positive feedback into your day-to-day work/life is to get into the habit of thanking people. Some people push back on this idea – saying ‘why should I thank someone for doing their job?’ The reason I recommend it is that the research is very clear:

  1. Thanking people increases the behaviour we thank them for – so if I want to see more of the same, I can simply thank the person.
  2. Thanking people contributes to civility and paves the way for cooperation and collaboration in the future.
  3. Expressions of gratitude also benefit the giver of thanks – including reductions in stress and increases in feelings of joy and positivity

Human brains have a well-known bias for negativity – we can spot what’s wrong more quickly and easily than we see to what is right. So we have to work at it.

Taking that bit of extra effort to spot and acknowledge contributions is a great way to wrap up the year. It will give you a chance to take stock of the good things people around you are doing to help you. It will help them learn and perform at their best AND it will make you both feel good!

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