For Better Results, Pump Up the Positive

By Emily Schunior

Delivering performance feedback to employees is a challenging and complex undertaking and one that most of us find awkward at best. But there are some foundational principles that can help cut through that complexity and one of those is “be positive”! In many different studies of high-performing teams, it has been demonstrated that to perform at their best, people need a praise to criticism ratio of somewhere between 4:1 to 6:1 (research cited in the Harvard Business Review came up with a 5:1 ratio as ideal). That means, for every piece of constructive criticism, employees should be getting 4-6 incidents of positive feedback from you.

I can hear some of you now protesting this approach, and with vigor:

  • “That’s not my style.”

  • “I don’t want people to get soft.”

  • “I would feel ridiculous praising people all day.”

I urge you to get that protest out of your system. At the end of the day, this is valuable data about how successful leaders manage employees. This is not about being nice, this is about being effective. You owe it to yourself, your customers, and your investors to maximize your team’s performance.

Gratitude in Real Time

The best way to describe a culture where this is really working well is “enthusiastic gratitude.” You may have heard before that when giving constructive criticism, you should say one nice thing, then you can say your real message, but then follow up with something nice again. The sh@# sandwich. This is not at all the point of the 4:1 rule. When you offer feedback in that “sandwiched” way, the recipient can see right through it and they just hear you being weak and indirect. The way this really works is for you to get into the habit of regularly observing your teams. You need to really see and appreciate the work they do for your organization. When they do something that exceeds your expectations, you tell them – right then. It may feel awkward at first, but like anything, practice makes perfect. When you consistently prove yourself as a credible observer of their performance who calls out when they do well, your constructive and directive feedback will find much more fertile ground. You can deliver it directly, without feeling you have to give them the sandwich to choke it down.

At my last company our culture was fast-paced and fun. We were a cheerful bunch, but intense, and we were not good at frequent feedback. To address this and get into better habits of enthusiastic gratitude, we initiated a program called “See Something, Say Something” to prompt every employee to really notice each other and call out great performance right when we saw it. We made small notepads and scattered them all over the office with prompts for feedback and encouraged everyone to jot down notes and then share the feedback with their direct reports, peers, and managers. Our employees responded enthusiastically, several even had sheets they’d received taped up in their cubes and everyone applauded the move towards frequent feedback. It took work, but the ubiquitous notepads encouraged us to deliver more real-time feedback rather than batching it up for a later sit-down meeting.

STAR/AR

The STAR format can be used to give better positive feedback, which makes it a great model for managers who struggle with getting past “good job” generalities. STAR is an acronym for “Situation or Task, Action, Result.” To use it, you describe the following verbally or in writing:

The Situation or Task: “We had to give a customer presentation on very short notice.”

The objective, observable Action that the person took: “You researched the subject thoroughly, put a great set of slides together, and called a team meeting to review and edit before the meeting.”

The Result: “Because of this, we all felt very prepared and comfortable and the presentation went great. The customer agreed to our proposal.”

This is so much different than “good job.” It proves to the employee that you paid attention, that you really saw them and recognized their effort, and it ties their action to a valued business result.

This format can also work extremely well with constructive feedback since it forces you to be objective and stick with employee actions instead of ascribing feelings and motivations to them. Though this isn’t the format to praise an employee but to give them constructive feedback, it can still feel more positive since it’s direct and objective. In this case, you go through the STAR but the Result will be sub-optimal. So you add the /AR, which is “Alternate Action/Alternate Result.” Here’s an example:

S/T: “You had a vacation planned and were working on some tasks that needed to be complete before you left.”

A: “You didn’t get them done and didn’t tell us what was left to complete.”

R: “We had to figure out what was where and pick up those loose threads to keep moving, which was frustrating for me.

/AA: “In the future, it will help everyone if you plan ahead to get everything wrapped up, and if you do run out of time, make sure to leave a detailed status so we know what’s left.”

/AR: “Then we will know what needs to be done and can be prepared to jump in and help.”

You will still have to do some preparation to make this smooth but the framework will guide you through the right pieces and will help you eliminate subjective details that don’t contribute to your feedback.

Pass the Butter

Sometimes when we are delivering a constructive point, we feel so awkward that we make it worse with a lot of extra explanation and apology. For example, when you’re at the dinner table, you don’t need to be awkward when you’re asking someone to pass the butter. You just say, “Please pass the butter.” And they pass it. And no one feels weird. It would be strange if you said, “Hey, um….Rachel, if you don’t mind, if it’s not too much trouble, could you maybe see your way clear to pass the butter this way?  Whenever you can.”

The point is, just be clear and very natural. You don’t have to bury your request or observation in a lot of extra details and information. “Pass the Butter” won’t be the way to address something really complicated, but it covers a lot of normal constructive/directive “See Something, Say Something”-type feedback.

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While the challenge of delivering performance feedback never completely goes away, having some good tools in your toolbox can help you feel more prepared and comfortable. Whatever the technique, creating a culture of enthusiastic gratitude takes investment and managers need to plan for it and allocate time and energy to doing it well. But, when you unleash the power of the positive in your team by: focusing on a 4:1 ratio positive ratio, delivering feedback in real time (“See Something, Say Something”), tying actions to results with the STAR format, and being clear and direct (“please pass the butter”), then you can truly expect better performance and better results.