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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was recently quoted on Inc. as saying that successful people learn to take feedback well. What it seems she was actually referring to was “constructive feedback” or what is sometimes thinly disguised criticism. While it is true we all need to learn from our mistakes, whether pointed out to us in the form of “feedback” or ones we spot ourselves, why, oh why, when we refer to “feedback” do we automatically mean the negative?

From my studies in positive psychology, of course I know the answer… Human beings are predisposed to look for the negative first; that has been our natural survival instinct. But being wired to see the negative is very different from actively encouraging it at work.

Of course managers need to address poor performance, point out mistakes and help correct behaviour. But they also need to let people know what they are doing right. And people do things right far more often than the frequency of positive feedback would lead us to believe.

 

Employ the 5:1 ratio

There is a growing body of research on couples, begun by John Gottman, which indicates that the ratio of positive and negative feedback needs to be more than balanced for healthy relationships. In fact, Gottmann found that the ideal ratio is 5:1 – yes that is five pieces of genuine positive feedback, or positive interaction, for every one piece of constructive/developmental/negative/howeveryouwanttophraseit feedback. This is now being studied in the workplace too.

Other research indicates that the positive feedback will only be effective if the feedback giver is held in esteem by the receiver. For instance relentless praise quickly becomes meaningless, it is the 5:1 balance of positive and negative that works.

 

In the Workplace

Is it little wonder that engagement at work in the UK is low, when we don’t train managers on how to give positive feedback?

So what can be done? One way tip to give a boost to the morale of your staff is simply to identify something they have done well and let them know. Too many things are saved for the annual review, and too little is said during the course of every day. Meetings focus on problems to be addressed, but why not start them by celebrating one thing that has gone well? That will, as positive psychologist Barbara Fredrikson discovered, encourage greater problem solving skills and generate more innovative ideas. Fredrikson coined the term “broaden & build” for this effect.

Looking back to when I was the manager of an international banking team, I now realise I could have done this better myself; but back then nobody had trained me in the importance of positive feedback.  So if you do manage a team, please start your meetings on a positive note, catch people doing things right and let them know… and remember the 5:1 ratio.