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The Science behind the Power of Positivity

Image of sunflowers.

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.