Being a better human - How to give better positive feedback

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures... I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.

Benjamin Barber

Digital marketing is one of the most rapidly evolving fields. It exists in a symbiotic relationship to the evolution of Google, Facebook, and other technological advancements. Rand Fishkin on a Whiteboard Friday, recently called our attention to “8 Old SEO Practices that are No Longer Effective,” because in this industry, if you’re not constantly learning, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant. In order to be effective in this ever-evolving field, we have to be obsessed, excited, and persistent in our pursuit of knowledge. One often overlooked approach to promoting this kind of mental agility is in getting better at giving and receiving positive feedback.

We’ve known for a few decades that positive feedback is as important as critical feedback, and according to some studies, even more impactful in its ability to create high performing teams. But Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor draws our attention to the fact we typically spend far less time crafting our positive assertions over our negative or critical. In this way, you may be unintentionally diminishing yourself, your peers, or your employees by being flippant with positivity.

Do Encourage. Don’t Praise

Praise and encouragement are often used interchangeably in business settings, but there’s a world of a difference. If you’re familiar with Carol S. Dweck (Ph.D) and her book  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, praise sits firmly in a fixed mindset whereas encouragement deals with growth. Yes, they’re both positive vehicles for expression, but praise, in a literal, dictionary sense, expresses favorable judgement, approve, and glorifies perfection. It may be very gratifying to hear a boss or colleague exclaim, off-the-cuff, “Wow, you’re such a great writer!” or well-intentioned expressions of “you’re creative, talented, smart,” and so on. But you wouldn’t accept these statements in reverse, would you? In a work setting if someone called you a “terrible writer” or “not creative,” we’d recognize these statements as inhibiting to growth. We have to do the same for praise.

Imagine, for a moment, the skills or areas you’ve maybe given up because you weren’t immediately good at them. From, “I’m a terrible cook,” to “I’m a naturally messy person,” you’ve probably made a statement or two about yourself from a fixed mindset. While that might be fine in some areas, if you’re working in digital marketing, do not accept anything that diminishes your work, effort and ability to pursue new heights of knowledge.

Praise, intentionally or unintentionally, creates codependency and deprives the receiver of acknowledgement for their work or effort in becoming a good writer, in appearing knowledgeable. The receiver of praise is more likely to depend on others for their feelings of self-worth or their desire to change. This same research Carol Dweck used for Mindset has shown that praise can create “approval junkies” instead of individuals with enhanced self-esteem. What’s worse, praise can actually hamper risk taking: individuals who were praised for being smart when they accomplished a task chose easier tasks in the future. They didn’t want to risk making mistakes.

In contrast, the very definition of encouragement is “to inspire with courage; to spur on.; to stimulate.” In the same research, individuals who were encouraged for their efforts were willing to choose more challenging tasks when given a choice.

Encouragement focuses on the process, the work, the action. It acknowledges one’s abilities are only a starting point for your potential and recognizes effort over results alone. In gearing your positive feedback towards encouragement, you allow the receiver of the feedback to change for themselves, to learn how to think and self-evaluate rather than relying solely on others.

Encouraging yourself and those around you will steer you towards growth mindset - the ideal framework for lifelong learning.

A four-step guide to Better Feedback

So how do you encourage and avoid praise? Let’s talk through the steps using an example situation.

Say your colleague, John, was supposed to put together a slide deck for a presentation in two weeks. In the same deadline, John put together two presentations, one for the client and one for his team. It was clear the two decks used the same data and were related, so time was used effectively, but they were successfully streamlined to their different audiences.

It might be very tempting to offer flippant, easy praise like, “Wow, that’s awesome! You’re so on top of it!” But what does that give John except knowing you liked it?

  1. Start with something specific and observable

You might start with something as simple as “Hey John! I noticed you put together two presentations instead of one!” Yes, a total no brainer, but it never hurts to start with something at which you can easily point.

  1. Acknowledge or draw attention to the qualities of the work (vs the person)

What about the work, the effort, or the details were good? “I appreciate that you put in the extra effort to address our two different audiences.” Even acknowledging when someone did more than was asked can be powerful.

  1. Own its impact on you

This is where it gets personal and authentic, even though you’re using an easy to replicable guide.

What about the work was positive to you specifically? If you’re a member on John’s team it might be, “I feel really prepared going into this client meeting since you took the time to brief the team first.” From a manager’s perspective, maybe,“ This will save me a lot of time, I anticipated having to do this myself!”   

  1. Ask more questions

If you skip all the other steps, this is the one to practice and repeat. Ask. More. Questions. Allowing someone to reflect with you what was successful about their work, owning what made it worth acknowledgement is what will create a learner for life. I’m going to rattle off a handful of questions, but I bet you can think of a dozen more.

  • “John, this is awesome. Can I share these presentations as stellar examples in the future?”
  • “How did you know that two presentations would be more useful?”
  • “Is this a part of your job you love doing? Would you like more opportunities like this?”

Pro Tip: This same four-step approach is easily used for constructive feedback as well.

Food for thought

I recently led a “Praise vs Encouragement” training with the Distilled consulting team in Seattle. One concern that was brought up was the feeling of authenticity. Doesn’t positive feedback need to be authentic to be effective, and won’t something this formal run the risk seeming fake? We’ve all been on the receiving end of a “praise sandwich,” another formalized way to give positive feedback. This “sandwich” is where two positive pieces of feedback frame a piece of constructive criticism in the middle, but often feels forced to the receiver. “This report is very detailed. But you’ll need to rewrite the last third of it. But, I love the font you chose!” Ick.

This four-step method for encouragement is meant to make you think differently about feedback. If you’re genuine in owning the impact step and are curious with your questions, it will still be an authentic expression. But it will definitely feel weird to think this way during the learning process.

We’d love to hear from you: put it in practice. Try this four-step approach for giving feedback in or out of work - it’s especially a good one to try with kids - and let us know what you think!

I have always been deeply motivated by outstanding achievement and saddened by wasted potential.

Carol Dweck

Get blog posts via email