A colleague recently asked me to give a training session on positive feedback. Although I was very clear about the benefits of positive feedback, I still found myself explaining how to give “negative” feedback. The question is whether there really is a difference between the two types? I believe there is, and as feedback can potentially be the most effective way for you to significantly increase employee engagement, it may be worth paying it some attention.

Feedback makes a difference

Feedback is an important leadership tool and discipline as well as a very effective lever for engagement. In 2017, a Gallup survey determined that those who received daily meaningful feedback were three times more engaged than those who received it only yearly. Another Gallup survey discovered that, while employees who regularly received negative feedback were 20 times more likely to be engaged than those who received no feedback at all, those who received positive feedback were 30 times more likely to be engaged. So knowing this – we should all be determined to give daily feedback to our employees and colleagues – and we should definitely turn up the volume on the positive feedback.

What is feedback, and what is it not?

First – let us get the definition straight. Feedback (both positive and negative) is about offering your perspective on a situation to the other person – to give them the opportunity to learn from understanding their effect on others. Feedback is not judgemental and is therefore not a compliment or a criticism. For example: “That was a great presentation” is a compliment, it is judgemental. The feedback version could be: “I really enjoyed your presentation because I could easily understand your key messages”.

Another example could be “That was a bad presentation. Next time you should use less text on your slides”. This is a criticism with the judgement “bad” and an instruction on how to do better. The feedback version could be: “It was hard for me to follow your presentation, mostly due to the fact I could not read all the text on your slides”. The feedback version allows the receiver to decide what to do with the feedback unlike an instruction, which is not and should not be open ended. So it is important to distinguish between the two. I am not advocating that all instruction should be delivered as feedback. There is a need for directive leadership, and this should not be disguised as feedback. So sorry guys – you need to be good at both!

The difference between positive and negative feedback

Now, let’s look into the difference between positive and negative feedback. I must start by saying that I have an issue with the term “negative” feedback. I think it would be more constructive if we start using the term “developing” feedback, which for me reflects more accurately what this type of feedback is all about. The purpose is to give the receiver an opportunity to develop a new perspective on his actions that might suggest a more effective way of acting another time.

So what is positive feedback then? While developing feedback is about inciting a change, the positive is about reinforcing what works well. In my view, the rules are the same, however, the process may vary slightly. While a developing feedback session tends to end with a conclusion about what the receiver might consider doing differently in the future, the positive feedback session should end by the receiver simply saying “thanks for the feedback”.

In my experience, most of us tend to have a favourite type of feedback (positive or developing), and there is usually a need to practice the other in order to have balance. If most of your feedback is developing, your employees could start to anticipate your reactions with anxiety. If, however your favoured style is the positive feedback, they could become uncertain about what you are not telling them, assuming there are development points not being pointed out.

How to hone your feedback skills to increase engagement

So, if you want to increase engagement through feedback, here are a few guidelines and tips to get you started.

  1. INCREASE FREQUENCY: Give feedback frequently, preferably daily. Yes, this is a challenge if you don’t have daily contact with your employees – but that doesn’t change the fact that the ideal is daily. Feedback can also be given by team members or other leaders, and it can also be done via electronic media. Be creative, find your way.Consider creating daily practices to support you. For example – make it a point to always give some kind of feedback after every meeting, even when it goes exactly as you expect. Find something that was particularly great or could be improved. If you institute this as a team practice, you have just scaled your feedback by engaging your whole team in the practice. But don’t forget – the team cannot compensate for your lack of feedback or poor quality of feedback. You must lead the way, demonstrate what good feedback is, and how frequent it can be.
  2. BUILD STRONG RELATIONSHIPS: Build respectful and trusting relationships with your employees. This will increase the impact of your feedback, as we tend to listen more to those we respect and trust. Spend time getting to know your employees, and let them see who you are as a person. This will pave the road to better relationships and more impactful feedback. For some, this is second nature, whereas others have to work at it.Be interested and curious about the people in your team. If this is a challenge for you – make a point of asking at least one personal question every time you meet someone at the coffee machine – and wait for the answer!Another practice, I use is “self-disclosure”. I share something about myself that shows I understand the situation or challenges others are in. Or sometimes I just share my humanness by showing my weaknesses. It is all about feeling safe to be vulnerable together. If we get that right, feedback will have a greater impact.
  3. BALANCE THE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE: Give a balance of both positive and developing feedback, but keep in mind that the positive should outweigh the developing if you want to increase your impact. Be aware of what your favourite type of feedback is – and build up some practices to support you increasing the use of the other type. You could start by making it a habit to always find one positive or development point after each meeting. There is always something. Don’t replace your existing feedback practices, but supplement them. The great thing about increasing developing feedback is, it also increases the value of the positive feedback you give.

The main point to remember is that, no matter what kind of feedback– only give feedback if you think it is useful for the other person, and you truly want to help them grow by sharing your perspective. Give your feedback with care, love and respect, and you can’t go wrong.