What did you do the last time you saw a colleague do something remarkable? Did you think, “Wow, that’s awesome,” and go about your day? Did you toss off a “nice job” or give them a fist bump? Instead, wouldn’t it be better if you recognized their efforts with something a little more meaningful and stickier than a pat on the back?

This is the fourth post in the series about how to avoid being a banal bystander on your team. Check out the other posts on how to help a colleague who’s being bullied, deal with passive-aggressiveness, and intervene when teammates are fighting.  But today, we’re changing it up by talking about how you can do more when you witness good behavior.

Balance Positive and Negative Feedback

The purpose of feedback is to help people understand the impact of their behavior on others. It’s an essential source of insight and critical to any person’s development.

Unfortunately, many people are quick to share negative feedback—describing the unwanted, ineffective impact of a person’s behavior—but slow when sharing positive messages. Think of the effects of that imbalance. If you only share feedback when your colleague’s behavior has impacted you negatively, you become the bearer of bad news, a Debbie/Donnie Downer. You become someone aversive the person needs to defend against rather than someone they can learn from. Balance in your feedback protects your relationship.

Plus, it’s hard to learn if you only hear what NOT to do. Balance in your feedback, where you share the positive impact of their behavior, not just the negative impact, makes it a better tool for development. Taken together, positive and negative feedback paint a fuller picture—more of this, less of that.

You’ll notice I’m not using the euphemism “constructive feedback” instead of negative feedback. That’s because all feedback should be constructive. That is, all feedback should have the goal of helping the person learn and improve. One of the reasons I feel strongly about this post is that what passes as positive feedback is often not constructive at all—it’s just formless featherweight flyaway praise. Let’s fix that.

Don’t Rush Your Positive Feedback

Before we dive into the mechanics of positive feedback, let’s just say it; giving someone positive feedback can be awkward. I know it’s weird, but it’s true. What if the person blushes and gets uncomfortable? What if you look like a suck-up? What if they think your feedback isn’t worth anything?

Don’t minimize the duration and intensity of your discomfort by turning your constructive feedback into vacuous praise. Here’s why:

  • Generic praise is empty calories. There’s no nutrition in it. It doesn’t fuel growth because it contains no information or insight about what created the positive impact or why.
  • If you rush your feedback, it won’t be as meaningful or sticky. As a result, you’ll lose the opportunity to create a genuine connection, and it won’t feel as authentic or as powerful.
  • If you end the conversation after you deliver your message, you’ll have no idea whether it landed. You’ll miss the chance to create a dialogue so you can learn together.

So, next time you think of shortchanging your feedback, stop yourself.  Use these techniques to make feedback feel less like a knock-off comment or trite sentiment.

How to Give Effective Positive Feedback

Before you say a word, start by reminding yourself that your experience of your teammate’s behavior is only your experience.  You experienced their behavior as positive, but someone else might have seen the same behavior as a problem. Always remember that feedback is your truth, not the truth.

Ok, with that said, here’s how to construct your statement.

  1. Orient them to the situation you’re thinking of. If it was a conversation you overheard in the hallway, say so. If it was a presentation they gave last week, you’d better remind them, or they’ll have no clue what you’re referring to.
  2. Translate your judgment about why you liked their behavior into crisp, objective feedback with as little subjectivity as possible. Instead of “you were my hero in that meeting,” try “when you asked the boss to let me finish my thought before interrupting….”
  3. Expose how the person’s behavior landed with you. Make sure that you phrase it as your reaction or impression rather than as the objective truth. For example, “When you asked the boss to let me finish, I felt like you had my back and that what I had to say was important.”

Most people stop there.  And if you stop there, you have made the “one and run” mistake. So, keep going: Make it a conversation!

  1. Invite the person to take ownership of the feedback using a big open-ended question. That will increase the likelihood that they internalize it. For example, “What gave you the courage to stand up to her?” “How did you decide when it was time to step in?”
  2. Now open your mind and try to learn something from the situation. “What could I have done differently so you didn’t need to step in?” Show that you value your teammate and want to benefit from their talents.

If you get to step 5, you’ll probably have to pick your teammate up off the floor because this will have been the most impactful positive feedback they’ve ever received.

When done well, positive feedback helps people know what to keep doing and gives them a sense of their strengths and contribution. But for it to be constructive, you need to deliver positive feedback just as carefully as you would if it were a negative message.

Let me know if you need help crafting your warm fuzzy feelings into constructive feedback, and I’ll help!

Additional Resources

Exercise: Giving Feedback Gently

How to give feedback to someone who doesn’t report to you

Passing on Feedback for Someone Else