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How to give positive feedback when it doesn’t feel natural

Plenty of leaders have hang-ups about how to share input with their teams. Here’s how to move beyond them.

How to give positive feedback when it doesn’t feel natural
[Source photo: ROCKETMANN TE/Unsplash]

Delivering feedback is a cornerstone of how you help your teams grow. However, many leaders focus solely on constructive feedback and neglect to give their teams positive feedback. Leaders often tell me that providing positive feedback feels inauthentic. They don’t know how to share the input without it seeming contrived, or they have other mental blocks that can keep them from delivering a “job well done.” 

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If this sounds like you, here are four tips on how to give authentic, positive feedback to support your team’s growth:

Recognize the importance of positive feedback

Many leaders tell me they just want their teams to get the work done. They believe that no feedback is necessary if the teams are doing the work, because “It’s their job to do good work. ” While this may be true at some level, there is a high cost for leaders who fail to share positive feedback: without it, your best people will leave.

One leader I worked with always did excellent work, but received no positive feedback from her managers. She told me that in ten years, she had never heard any positive feedback because “it’s just not part of our culture.” The client never knew how she was doing; she started to create stories about her perceived progress or lack thereof. The rumination created a lot of wasted time and energy for her. My client started to lose focus on the work at hand; rather, before important presentations she would worry that her work wasn’t good enough.

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Leaders in the organization started to leave because they had no metric to gauge whether they were on track in their careers. In exit interviews, they talked about the lack of feedback, specifically positive discussions. Without positive feedback, people will feel less motivated and eventually burn out—especially when working in a virtual setting. The lesson: Your teams need to know what is going right so they can expand on it and continue to grow. Everyone wants and needs recognition.

Consider your history of receiving feedback

If you haven’t received positive feedback, it can be hard to understand what the experience involves. Go back and think about your career from a high-level perspective. Recognize your excellent work. Show appreciation to yourself; then you’ll have an easier time sharing appreciation with your team.

One former client decided he would create a retrospective of the excellent work he had accomplished and any tidbits of positive feedback he’d received. This work helped him in two ways. First, he felt the positive “halo effect” of appreciating his superb work. Second, he was able to recognize that positive feedback is key to maintaining motivation and moving forward.

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After you’ve recognized your own good work, practice giving positive feedback to others until the process feels natural. You can implement this practice in the last five to ten minutes of team members’ status meetings.

One former client had never received much positive feedback due to the nature of his workplace culture. When he began delivering positive feedback at the end of his status meetings, my client found a lot of joy and deepened relationships with his teams.

Examine different feedback models

Many leaders have never been shown how to deliver positive feedback, or have never received it in the past. If this is you, it’s time to recalibrate. There are many resources to help you learn how to share positive feedback; or, you can ask a colleague to share their techniques.

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One leader I worked with decided to practice how she delivered positive feedback with a trusted colleague. This practice allowed her to gain a natural feel for delivering positive feedback before she began the process with her teams. After you’ve investigated and looked at methods to deliver positive feedback, test some of the tactics and see what feels authentic to you.

I worked with one client who felt “fake” giving positive feedback. Together, we created a model where she could genuinely share positive feedback. After hitting on the right strategy, my client felt motivated to share. For her, short and sweet was best. She found small, consistent ways to boost her teams, such as: “Great job on the model—your estimate on the project was spot on with what the company needs for making the next quarter successful.”

 If necessary, reconsider your team’s organizational structure

You may have a mental block against delivering positive feedback because you believe your teams don’t deserve it: They aren’t accomplishing their goals. If this is the case, first see if you need to reorganize your teams so the right people are working on the right tasks. When the right people are doing the right jobs, you can exponentially increase your teams’ output.

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Second, make sure you’ve set expectations for what you require of each team member. You can’t deliver any feedback—especially positive feedback—if there isn’t a plan for each team member.

In addition to role expectations, you as a leader must give your teams a framework so they can progress in their career paths. Then, think about how to guide the team forward. I recommend giving a small dose of positive feedback after the organizational reset. What is one small thing that is going right? Make a note of it and celebrate; this will build your team’s confidence. These small wins will snowball, and your acknowledgment of your team members will create a positive work climate.

While you may have never received or delivered positive feedback, you must acknowledge where your team is doing well if you want them to stay motivated. Creating a positive climate will catapult your team’s output and result in a happier workplace.

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Anne Sugar is an executive coach and keynote speaker who has advised top leaders in verticals such as biotech, technology, and finance. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.


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