5 Steps to Deliver Positive Feedback to an Employee

Delivering positive feedback to an employee seems like it’d be easy – you just tell the employee what they’re doing well. 

Ha. If only it were that easy. The reality is that positive feedback, while a great motivating tool, needs to be implemented prudently and in line with constructive feedback to be the most effective. 

Sure, positive feedback can boost morale. But, when it isn’t done right, it can end up leaving an employee confused about what to focus on. 

So how do you go about reinforcing a high-flying employee’s great performance without jeopardizing their growth? 

Read on to find out! 

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What is positive feedback? 

“Hey Jan, that webinar you put together was impressive. You kept things informative while still being engaging. Nicely done!”

Look at that. That’s some positive feedback. 

Positive feedback is an acknowledgment of one’s accomplishments, strengths, or positive performance. This type of feedback can be informal (such as a manager giving an employee a shout-out during a stand-up) or it can be tied to the performance review process. 

In a performance review, positive feedback can take the form of a manager specifically calling out key wins, accomplishments, growth, development, or overall performance that the employee has exhibited during the review cycle. 

How can I incorporate positive feedback into the performance review cycle? 

As an HR professional, you’re often tasked with developing the specific questions and rubric an employee will be evaluated on during a performance review. It can be beneficial to include a topic that will lend itself to positive feedback. 

Some examples of these topics include: 

  • When did this employee perform their best? 
  • What are some key wins this employee exhibited?
  • What are some moments of growth this employee had?
  • How did this employee help their team and the company this quarter?
  • What impressed you most about this employee this quarter?

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it provides a jumping-off point. Each of these topics will spur a manager to provide thoughtful, specific positive feedback. 

Positive feedback, however, doesn’t need to only come from a manager. It can be self-directed as well. Some examples of prompts to encourage positive feedback include:

  • I am at my best when I…
  • A project I am proud of is…
  • I showed growth this quarter when…

Self-reviews can be a great way for employees to reexamine their performance, find examples of their positive performance, and reflect on their growth. 

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What are the benefits of positive feedback?

Providing positive feedback to employees can be very beneficial for their performance and well-being. As their performance is recognized and rewarded, they are motivated to continue to perform at a high level. 

Here are some of the key benefits of providing positive feedback as part of the performance review cycle. 

Improves engagement

According to the Harvard Business Review, positive feedback has major benefits for employee engagement. 

Look at these eye-popping stats: When managers only focused on employees’ strengths, 67% of those employees were fully engaged at work. That’s double the percentage where managers only focused on the negative. 

Another stat: Employees who receive recognition are 3x more likely to be engaged at work than those who do not receive positive feedback. 

Those are stark differences. It pays to be positive!

Increases morale

If an employee never receives any feedback (good or bad), they may simply think that their work isn’t that important. “I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing…nothing seems to matter either way.” 

If an employee only receives negative feedback, they may think that their work is never good enough. “I can’t do anything right. What’s the point of trying?” 

However, if they receive positive feedback, they understand that their work is valued by the organization. “My boss liked my presentation last week. I’m growing and getting more responsibilities. Things are looking up!” 

Positive feedback shows your employees that you are paying attention to their work, that their performance is good, and that they are growing. 

Reinforces good performance 

If your boss never gave you any feedback – good or bad – how would you know what you were doing right or wrong? You wouldn’t. 

With positive feedback, you reinforce good performance. When a manager says, “You did a great job closing that sale,” a salesperson will think, “I should try and close my sales exactly like that in the future.” This has the effect of reinforcing performance that works.

Reduces employee turnover

As we discussed earlier, positive feedback keeps employees engaged. Engaged employees who believe that their work is valuable and appreciated are more likely to stick around at your company. With the cost of replacing an employee estimated at 2x their annual salary, it makes sense to retain employees rather than churn and replace. 

Are there any positive feedback risks? 

When positive feedback isn’t implemented effectively, employee performance can suffer. How is that possible? Well, if positive feedback is used to cushion negative feedback, the overall takeaway can be muddled, leaving employees confused as to what they need to work on. 

Here are the risks of using positive feedback in an inauthentic manner. 

Insincere compliments can be confusing. 

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “compliment sandwich,” where you cushion a piece of constructive feedback between two positive statements. The problem with the compliment sandwich is that the two positive statements were used only to cushion the blow of the negative statement. 

When receiving the compliment sandwich, a worker can be confused as to what is sincere and what is the takeaway. We commissioned a study on the compliment sandwich. Our findings: Only 55% of employees thought that the piece of negative feedback was the takeaway. 43% thought the positive feedback pieces were more important! 

Understandably, a manager would want to cushion the blow of negative feedback, but the reality is that using positive feedback in this manner muddies the waters and makes it less likely that an employee will respond effectively to the feedback. 

Risk of faint praise

If your office culture over-relies on positive feedback to the point that negative feedback is almost non-existent, then you risk people indirectly using positive feedback to deliver negative feedback. 

Here’s an example. Jordan has just given a presentation. However, he was a little nervous and talked too quickly. Additionally, some of his data was inaccurate. There were some good ideas, but the execution wasn’t perfect. 

When his boss, Avery, is asked about the presentation, she says, “The formatting was well done.” 

Oof. If the formatting is the only thing she can pull out as a win, we know it was a bad presentation. 

However, we don’t know what was wrong with the presentation. Instead, Jordan now has to fret over Avery’s passive-aggressive communication. What did Jordan do wrong? How could she improve? 

Communication breaks down

Some cultures are less direct in their communication than others – this is not to suggest that one method of communication is better than others. However, in the US, our communication style is more direct. In cultures where indirect communication is the norm, it is easy for people to parse through indirect comments to perceive their criticism. 

For example, in an indirect culture, constructive feedback could be presented like this: 

“Thanks for getting me that report, really nice. If I could change one thing, I’d consider adding a few citations in the middle and then reworking the conclusion to be a little stronger. Just an idea. But great.” 

The feedback, of course, is that the report needs citations and a better conclusion. In a culture where this type of communication is common, this would be understood. 

However, if this type of feedback were presented to someone from a more direct culture – for example, the US – then this feedback could be confusing. 

This is the risk you run when you only rely on positive feedback: you confuse communications. What is a compliment? What is positive? Should I keep doing what I’m doing, or do I need to change?

To us, the answer is simple: be sincere with your positive feedback. 

When is positive feedback not appropriate? 

Sometimes, there will be situations where positive feedback won’t work out. Perhaps an employee blew a deadline. Maybe a peer didn’t contribute equally to a project. In these instances, you need to avoid the desire to use the compliment sandwich. Instead, you need to deliver fair but transparent negative feedback. 

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5 tips for giving positive feedback

Positive feedback is an integral part of developing a great company culture and a high-performing workforce. But, it needs to be implemented correctly to be effective. Want to recognize your employees for their great performance? Follow our five tips for giving positive feedback the right way.

1. Be Timely

‍The most important aspect of giving positive feedback is that it is delivered shortly after the action. As time passes, not only will it be harder to recall the details of the success, but you will have missed the opportunity to allow your employee to reflect on their hard work.

Even if you are planning a more formal recognition, it is still important to follow up within at least a day or two with an appreciative note.

2. Be Honest

‍Rewarding the right employees for the work that they did is important for your credibility and also for team morale. Giving too much credit to an employee on false grounds can lead to unintended consequences by showing that you value dishonesty over teamwork.

This may take some investigating, so be sure that your mid-level managers are on board and understand the importance of giving honest, positive feedback.

3. Be Meaningful

‍Make sure to set a high enough threshold that employees and teams have to stretch to earn recognition and positive feedback. Rewarding a mediocre employee’s performance devalues the high performers on your team.

Additionally, the sincere delivery of a reward for great work shows how much you appreciate exceptional effort. In some cases, a thoughtful, appreciative note can be just as effective and appreciated as a small gift.

4. Be Detailed

‍Make sure that your hard worker doesn’t lose the lesson when you feed them praise. Adding specific details on the work they did and why their behavior was outstanding will help them repeat their performance in the future.

5. Be Attentive

‍It can be easy to overlook the quiet performers on your team. However, finding the diamond performances in the rough shows that you have a finger on the pulse of your company. Additionally, demonstrating that popularity isn’t a factor in rewarding a job well done will help better convey how you define exceptional performance.

What are some examples of positive feedback? 

We’ve talked a lot about positive feedback in the abstract. But what does it look like when put into practice? Let’s take a look at a few key examples of a manager providing positive feedback in different scenarios. 

An employee completed a project successfully. 

“Great job completing that report this month. I know that you worked hard on doing research and conducting client interviews, and the results reflect that work. I showed it to the VP of sales, and she believes this will be a valuable sales asset. Nicely done!” 

In this example of positive feedback, the manager focuses on specific details of the performance that were done well. 

An employee resolved a conflict

“I want to call out how well you handled the criticism coming from the delivery team. I agree that they were off-base with their criticism, but you did a great job of keeping calm and asking them to walk you through the issues they had. In the end, they got what they needed, and you were able to resolve the tension well.” 

An employee took on new responsibilities

“With Justin out on paternity leave, there has been a lot of extra work our team has to cover. I appreciate that you have stepped up to take on much of his workload this last quarter. Thanks to your hard work, we were able to launch all the campaigns on time.” 

Again, this positive feedback example stresses the specific details of the positive performance. 

How can I deliver positive feedback with a performance management tool? 

Positive feedback can be delivered informally – through 1:1s, Slack messages, or team shoutouts. However, it can be beneficial to add positive feedback to the review cycle. While you certainly could attempt to do this manually, we’ve found that a performance management tool like PerfomYard can make your performance management process sing! 

From creating fully customizable forms, building out 360 reviews, or creating continuous feedback processes, PerformYard is the agile performance management tool that can adapt to your organization’s needs. 

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