An Unlikely Win-Win-Win

Positive feedback inspires better employee performance

Ten years ago, as I walked around the nursing home that I ran, I did what many leaders do, regardless of the field that they are in. I pointed out everything that was wrong. Sure, I took time to say hello, chatted a bit with employees and said thanks for a few things I saw going right. But, I also pointed out everything that was going wrong. Everything!

Then a certified nursing assistant (CNA) said something that has stuck with me for years, “Denise, all you do is see the negative.”

My immediate reaction was to defend myself, both in my head and to the person who had spoken these words I was finding hard to swallow. When I returned to my office, I couldn’t stop thinking about what she said. Was she right? As I reflected, I thought about how I pointed out a few positive things, but not nearly as many as the negative. I realized her words hurt so badly because they were the truth.

Scientists call this the negativity bias. As humans, we are hardwired to notice bad things instead of good ones. That’s helpful if you are a caveman who always has to be on the lookout for danger. It’s not so helpful if you are a leader trying to inspire better employee performance!

As an administrator, I followed the advice we’ve all heard: praise someone, deliver a criticism and then praise them again. I assumed my walking around was morale building and uplifting, but the CNA opened my eyes to how staff really interpreted my feedback:  mostly negative. I knew staff members could be motivated by different types of appreciation.  But if my compliments were genuine, then it all balanced out, right?

Wrong.  Research from the University of Michigan shows leaders and managers should use positive reinforcement six times more than negative feedback if they want the best outcomes from their teams.  In fact, teams that had this balance of positive to negative feedback were the best performing in the study as measured by profitability; customer satisfaction; and assessments by superiors, peers and subordinates. Interestingly, the worst-performing teams, those that performed poorly on all three measures, used three negative comments for each positive one.

When the focus is only on the negative, the message is, “Nothing you do is good enough.” Criticism lessens the enthusiasm and commitment of staff members. Tellingly, lack of praise ranks at or near the top of employee issues in almost every employee engagement study. The Gallup Q12, a 12-item employee engagement assessment, asks if the employee has received praise in the last seven days. Variations in responses are found to be responsible for a 10 to 20 percent difference in revenue and productivity. Employees who regularly receive praise and recognition are found to have better safety records, fewer accidents on the job and are more likely to stay with the organization. Positive feedback isn’t just good for employees. Customers served by those employees reported increased loyalty and satisfaction, too.

The option of not sharing any feedback and assuming people instinctively know they are doing a good job doesn’t work, either. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor states the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs isn’t pay or benefits. It’s that they don’t feel appreciated.

I recognized that I needed to change as a leader. I made it a priority to look for anything and everything going right and then immediately praised the person who made it possible. While praising people isn’t the only way to show employees they are appreciated, I knew I needed to focus more on positive feedback! More importantly, I decided to hold my tongue if I witnessed things done differently so long as there was no harm being done.

In the work that my company, Drive, has done with organizations across the country we’ve talked to thousands and thousands of employees to find out what goes well in their organization and what could go better.  One of the most common pieces of feedback is that there is a lack of consistent appreciation.  Everyone wants to know their work matters and that someone cares.

The outcomes in these organizations once they start focusing on employee engagement and appreciation is remarkable.  Recruitment efforts improve, the bottom line gets stronger, and as one client told us, “My job as a leader got easier!”  If you’re committed to having the same outcomes in your organization, then be sure you seek out any and every reason to praise them and use correction judiciously as it’s more likely to cause them to become disengaged.

As employees feel recognized and appreciated for their efforts, their positive state of mind will impact the overall culture of the organization.  I saw it happen in my organization and with the many organizations I work with now.  I felt its positive impact not only on my team, and the people we served, but on myself as a leader.  A win-win-win!  How often do you get to say that?

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From Dr. Paul:  I’m pleased to have Denise Boudreau-Scott share her thoughts and lessons learned.  Denise is a expert in assisting senior care facilities in improving their culture and graciously brought me in to work with a number of organizational leaders.

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