Pure Positive Feedback

2022-11-18 21:44

At work we've been iterating on building a culture of feedback 1. It's a big topic. Today's session was particularly interesting and it got me thinking about the importance of positive feedback. Specifically, I want to talk about giving pure positive feedback.

What's Pure Positive Feedback?

Pure positive feedback is a term I'm making up to describe feedback in which the only goal is to share a positive thought or piece of feedback to a person with no ulterior motive. You are not using the dreaded hamburger approach as a way to couch a piece of negative feedback between slices of positive feedback. You're not giving positive feedback because you are trying to butter someone up for some reason (that will be the last of the food analogies).

Pure positive feedback is not performative, either.

The closest way I can describe it is that one waters a flower to make it grow. Simple. So, simple. But wherein lies the rub? We have to want the flower to grow.

Don't you mean... encouragement?


Here's the thing; in previous jobs I have not witnessed strong systems for facilitating encouragement. The most I have seen are slack channels for "shout-outs" and mentorship programs or retros that have a what went well this week? section. And while those things are great they are also somewhat informal.

Almost every workplace I've been in, on the other hand, have identified "Feedback" as a contributing element to happiness, business success, and all those other metrics that some data-monger is mongering. There are systems for facilitating feedback.

The cynical part of me thinks that performance reviews are probably the top of mind for most folks here, when the word feedback starts getting bandied about. But the optimist in me wants to believe that humans inherently want to do meaningful work, and want feedback if they are incidentally making it difficult for other's to do meaningful work, or if what they're doing is really helping a team move toward a unified goal.

So, purefly positive feedback is a thinly-veiled term for giving encouragement. Why bother talking about this? I think that feedback has too much of a negative connotation. Why do I and so many people I've encountered dread doing "360 reviews" where you have to come up adjudications of the people you work with? In many ways, it's a performance that requires you to concoct a mixed bag of nice things and things you don't like about how a person works / how they make you feel in order to be perceived as a participant. That's a whole 'nother topic tho, I think.

The challenge of pure positive feedback

Yes, giving pure positive feedback is difficult, and for many possible reasons, I suspect.

In my experience, in most workplaces it is uncommon to just give people positive reinforcement. Good job. You're doing great. Your contribution really helped. Whatever. Why is that?

I don't have an answer. But that didn't stop me from wondering about potential origins for this:

  • expressing positive feelings can be difficult (workplace power dynamics, gender roles/expectations, the challenges of being vulnerable, fear of offending or making someone uncomfortable, etc.)
  • it seems largely easier to criticize than to give positive feedback (to ourselves or others)
  • giving someone praise, one might fear that they will pale in comparison or look less adequate as a result (perhaps, say, complimenting someone for knowing something that might think is common knowledge and would think less of you for it).
  • we might be operating in a mono culturue where things like giving praise is not the norm.
  • maybe we didn't receive much positive feedback when we started out, so we aren't conditioned to give positive feedback to others who have less experience than us.
  • culturally, again, we might be oriented to believe that 'no news is good news.'

Honestly, there could be a whole host of reasons. I've tried to empathize with my past and current self, and other folks I've talked to, and the above list is just scraping things off the top o' the dome. I think that it's highly contextual, and that it also really depends on individual personalities.

But what if everyone was more encouraging? What would that world look like? I can't answer that, but if the idea seems bright to you, I will at least share a method I like for expression thanks, appreciation and encouragement.

A few tips

So, if giving positive feedback is hard (if it's not hard for you, yay! Pat yourself on the back), what can we do to make it easier (and remember, we're just talking about how to encourage people)?

Lately, I've been a fan of the approaches to communication described in Non Violent Communication (and honestly, a lot of other resources on giving/getting feedback seem to borrow ideas from it.) Here's what it mentions on giving compliments:

“Compliments are often judgments—however positive-of others.”

NVC wants to avoid evaluations / judgements of others - even if positive.

“When we use NVC to express appreciation, it is purely to celebrate, not to get something in return. Our sole intention is to celebrate the way our lives have been enriched by others.”

How do we give positive feedback / praise / compliments, then? As the person delivering this PPF, try and identify the following:

  1. the actions that have contributed to our well-being
  2. the particular needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  3. the pleasureful feelings engendered by the fulfillment of those needs”

While it's nice to say ''great job on X" we can provide more by following the above three steps. I'm not saying it's easy or even necessarily intuitive; but if you're already going to give the gift of encouragement - why not give it in a way that lets the receiver see explictly what their hard work / efforts provided for others?

Let's try an example where I'm giving some PPF to a coworker who helped me understand a new concept

On tuesday, you volunteered your time to pair on X issue, where you shared Y knowledge to help me. I appreciated how you kindly asked if I was familiar with Y, because my need to feel respected at work for what I have to offer - even if I don't know certain topics - was being met. As a result, I felt included and welcomed.

I have to say, that wasn't easy to write - nor is it easy to read back. I think that I need a bit of practice— frankly, this method doesn't come naturally. But, on the other hand. I think I've found the right thing to practice.



Usual disclaimer: My views do not reflect my employers views