How can we keep our employees motivated and eager to excel with positive feedback?
Feedback is one of the best ways to help employees stay motivated. Research indicates that regular feedback creates a culture of learning and developing and encourages employees to thrive and excel in their work. Direct and constructive feedback on
performance and progress also helps employees to feel valued and engaged. Yet giving the right kind of feedback can feel like a tightrope walk — an all-too-delicate balancing act.
Companies are increasingly turning away from outdated annual performance review systems in favour of frequent feedback, encouraged by the results of others, such as GE and Microsoft. Yet without the right guiding framework, continuous performance reviews can end up being used to constantly criticise and nitpick employees’ weaknesses and mistakes under the guise of “constructive criticism”. The result? Employees are left feeling micromanaged and patronised. Constantly critiquing negative qualities and problem areas makes feedback an unwelcome process, and when repeated over time it can lower self-esteem, induce feelings of resentment and frustration and increase employee stress.
Worryingly, research shows that over one-third of feedback leads to a drop in performance. A survey conducted by Gallup found that only 27% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive actually helps them to perform better, while a staggeringly low 22% strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates and pushes them to improve. Even more troubling, ineffective feedback can also have devastating consequences for the company. A study by Harvard Business Review shows that employees who gave their managers the lowest ranking for providing quality feedback were also in the bottom quartile for job satisfaction, organisational commitment and the desire to stay within the company. The conclusion is clear — poor feedback leads to lower engagement and has an overall negative impact on the success of a company.
So what’s the solution? Well, behavioural science shows us that the best, most effective, type of feedback is the kind that focuses on employees’ strengths, successes, ideas and accomplished goals. It turns out that positive feedback is the most powerful tool for employee motivation.
Power of Positivity
The “power of positivity” may sound suspiciously hippy, but research provides a compelling case for positivity in the workplace. A Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose leaders focused on their positive traits and successes were fully engaged in their work in contrast to the 31% of employees whose managers focused on the negatives. Another survey, by IBM, that covered over 19,000 workers across different industries and organisations, also highlighted the importance of positive feedback. Here, a strong correlation was found between the engagement level of employees and positive recognition — with engagement three times higher among employees who received positive feedback compared to others who did not. And those staff who received positive feedback were also more likely to stay loyal to the company. So, not only does positivity help to increase happiness and motivation, but it also drives retention and ensures job satisfaction.
Strategies for Effective Positive Feedback
Adopting a positive feedback approach is not difficult, although like any new habit, it takes practice before it becomes the normal way of doing things. Here are some of our top strategies for building positivity into continuous performance reviews:
Play to employee strengths
Positive feedback should focus on things like work achievements, progress made towards goals and positive demonstration of values and behaviours. Identifying an employee’s strengths not only boosts their motivation but also helps managers to identify and maximise natural abilities. For example, if an employee has poor data analysis skills but consistently proves themselves to be a creative and lateral thinker, rather than berating them for underperforming on data analysis, managers could instead assign them projects in which their creative thinking can be optimised.
A study of over 1.2 million employees discovered that 90% of groups that were put together and informed by employee strengths saw far-reaching performance improvements: 7% higher customer engagement; 19% increase in sales; 29% increase in profit; and a staggering 72% lower turnover and 15% increase in employee engagement.
It’s simple really, by focusing on areas that employees naturally excel in, employees are free to build on their strengths naturally and organically rather than desperately attempting to master skills that they find difficult.
But how can you identify employee strengths and abilities? A simple and effective technique is to include some strengths focused questions in your check-in conversations. Questions like “What aspect of your job do you find easier than others?” and “What situations to you feel most confident in?” can be incredibly powerful. Seeking feedback from a wide range of sources is also helpful as other people often spot strengths that we don’t notice or recognise ourselves.
Once we have a clear sense of what employees excel in, we can then focus our discussions on how to leverage those strengths further – for example assigning projects and tasks that play to those strengths and which also support the employee’s personal objectives and development.
Deconstruct the feedback sandwich
The feedback sandwich is an overused technique to disguise negative feedback by sandwiching it between two compliments. Not only is this technique unconvincing and patronizing, it also shows a lack of managerial conviction and authority. Employees are left feeling defensive, ashamed, and doubting the validity of the positive comments. Of course, there are times when critical or constructive feedback is necessary and it can be incredibly effective. But as with all things, moderation is key.
Psychological research recently revealed that the most effective ratio of positive-to-negative feedback is 6:1. Following this ratio ensures that feedback is used to boost confidence and encourage employees to push themselves, rather than undermining and berating them. But that doesn’t mean that managers should pad out the “sandwich” and deliver six compliments every time a negative comment needs to be made. Rather, it shows that managers should focus on giving positive feedback regularly so that when constructive feedback needs to be given, it can be given confidently without needing to be disguised.
Keeping track of how much feedback you have given as a manager can be hard. This is where continuous performance management software can be helpful. It tracks feedback being given and then flags to managers where feedback is needed. It also enables patterns of negative feedback to be spotted and addressed.
Open up a two-way dialogue
Performance reviews are often a one-sided affair. All too often they become a manager-driven monologue with little space for dialogue and conversation. Part of the blame lies in the legacy of annual appraisals with their focus on form completion and ratings. These can end up stifling the best intended conversations. The result? Employees are left feeling undervalued and as if their concerns are being ignored. In a Gallup study, only 2% of employees who felt they were unable to approach managers with a question were engaged with their work.
And this is why annual performance reviews no longer work. When conversations are scheduled rigidly once a year, time constraints dictate that the conversation must sweep through an entire year of an employee’s work. There’s simply not enough time to open up the conversation to address specific questions, concerns or ideas.
So it’s time to replace ineffective annual appraisals with regular one-to-one check-in conversations. This is obviously a massive change for most organisations, so we’ve written a free eBook on how to do it.
Address blind spots in giving feedback
Everyone has blind spots — things that we do without us realising. When it comes to giving feedback, it may be the habit of narrowing our eyes when we deliver it, or adopting a harsh tone of voice when we are under pressure. However positive our intentions, these blindspots can create a rift between the intent and impact of our feedback.
How we deliver feedback it is just as important as the words and intention behind it. A recent study revealed the extent to which this is true. Here, two groups were observed: the first received negative feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals (such as smiles); the second received positive feedback with negative emotional signals (such as frowns). Those who received the positive feedback ended up feeling worse about their performance than those who received negative feedback in a good-natured way. So even if you’re giving positive feedback, if the delivery is negative- employees will still react poorly to it.
Addressing blind spots like this can, however, be difficult. More often than not, we aren’t even aware of the tone and expressions we routinely adopt. The only way to truly get a sense of your feedback delivery is to ask your colleagues — employees and managers alike. By asking peers questions such as “How did that come across?” and “How did you feel after that feedback I gave you yesterday” blind spots will start to make themselves apparent and any discord between your intent and delivery can be remedied.
Positivity is powerful, especially when providing effective feedback. Clear Review helps your managers to engage in more positive conversations and feedback. Book in for a free performance management software demo and find out how you can improve your organisation’s feedback conversations.