How To Give Powerful Positive Feedback

By
Beverly Jones


Updated Thu, Aug 21, 2014 9:02 am

"Josh" was general counsel of a federal agency. He came to coaching after a staff survey helped him realize that many of the lawyers working for him felt under-appreciated. And they had real concerns about his leadership style.

Josh's initial reaction was defensive and disdainful. He said, "Grown-up lawyers shouldn't expect to be thanked just for doing excellent work. They get paid, don't they? And when I don't comment they should know everything is OK, because I always tell them when they screw up."

We spoke about the human need to be acknowledged and appreciated. And I pointed to numerous studies demonstrating that people will be more productive in a positive work environment.

Eventually Josh agreed to try an experiment. Every workday he put three coins in his pocket. Each time he thanked or complimented a team member he could remove one coin. And he couldn't go home until all three were gone.

After the first week, Josh said he was enjoying the experiment more than he had expected. But he still felt awkward saying "thanks," so he was looking for more occasions to practice. He found times to say "thank you" at home, in the coffee shop, and wherever he went on the weekend.

The more Josh practiced, the more comfortable he felt offering thanks and positive feedback. And he was having fun with it. He said, "the amazing thing is not that it makes them happy, but that it makes me happy, too." Soon he quit carrying the coins because he no longer needed them. Josh said he was addicted to his "thank you" habit, and it had changed the way he looked at several parts of his life.

Well-crafted words of thanks and praise can serve as powerful positive reinforcement, guiding members of your team to achieve, change and grow. By regularly thanking or acknowledging people for their work, you can help to shape a more positive and collaborative office environment, even if you're not the boss.

These eight tips can help build your "thank you" habit into a powerful leadership tool:

  1. Be sincere. Disingenuous flattery doesn't work. It sounds creepy and seldom fools people — at least not for long. Get in touch with your sense f gratitude when you express thanks, and speak honestly about how you feel.
  2. Be specific. A vague, casual "thanks" isn't nearly as effective as a more detailed comment. After saying "good job," add more particulars, like, "I particularly appreciated the way you involved other team members." Precise comments not only carry more impact but also provide powerful reinforcement for the performance you want to encourage.
  3. Fully engage. Part of the power of saying "thank you" comes from the fact that you care enough to focus on another person. Get full value from the thanks exchange by making eye contact and listening carefully to any response.
  4. Notice what's taken for granted. If we maintain a high level of performance, our colleagues may assume it's just normal and cease to notice it. Then it feels especially good if someone recognizes how hard we've worked to keep up the pace. When you express appreciation to a valuable team member, make it clear that you understand what goes into their high standards and good results.
  5. Calibrate your "thank you." Elaborate kudos in response to some little thing may seem fake and can be embarrassing. And too little gratitude for a huge effort can feel insulting. The tone and style of your tribute should be commensurate with the good work you're calling out. A casual email can be enough to make somebody feel appreciated for a routine task. But a face-to-face encounter is more appropriate if they pulled out all the stops.
  6. Write. Don't forget the power of a hand-written note. It still feels good when another person takes the time to sit down and write about what we've done.
  7. Be surprising. Formalized praise, such as during an annual review, is important, but it's not enough. And, over time, routine assessments feel ho-hum, no matter how positive they may be. To show you mean it, express your gratitude or admiration when it's not expected.
  8. Be quick. Offer your commendation as soon as possible after the activity that inspired it. Words of thanks and approval (like other feedback) have more impact right after we've done the work.

One value of the "thank you" habit is what it does for you. When you regularly look for opportunities to express appreciation, you are more likely to focus on and support the values and activities that matter most. And research suggests that taking the time to feel grateful can actually reduce your anxiety. Saying kind words to others can feel very good, and sometimes hearing their response can feel even better.

Read more about how to create change by saying "thank you." And try these tips on how to respond when someone else has praised you.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.

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