The Lost Leadership Art of Positive Feedback

A simple plan for giving your team constructive compliments that boost productivity.

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By Shawn Doyle

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It is critically important as a leader to give team members consistent feedback, not only on what they need to improve but also what they are doing well. I meet employees all over the world who sadly tell me their boss never gives them any positive feedback, only leveling criticism when they make a mistake. When I worked in corporate America and asked my boss how I was doing, he told me, "I will let you know when you screw up." It is any wonder that according to a survey conducted by professional-services firm EY, only 46 percent of employees place "a great deal of trust" in their employers, and 15 percent report "very little" or "no trust at all"? It's time to change that.

We as leaders need to learn how to give constructive compliments. But what is a constructive compliment? It is sophisticated, effective, directive, and it encourages positive behaviors. Here are some guidelines to make sure your positive feedback is useful and gets results.

Give Compliments

Giving people credit for what they do well increases productivity and improves morale. Everyone needs a pat on the back. It's demoralizing when team members work hard without any acknowledgment of their hard work. I have mangers in leadership programs who defiantly say, "I'm not giving someone a compliment when it is something we pay them to do." This statement demonstrates a lack of awareness of human psychology.

Related: 5 Steps for Giving Productive Feedback

Be Specific

When a leader compliments someone, it shouldn't be vague. Don't say, "Great presentation, Rachael." Instead, say, "I want to tell you, that was a great presentation, Rachael. What I liked was the way you started with a real-life story that got the group's attention. I think we will get approval thanks to your superb effort."

Four-Step Formula

Here is the method I teach leaders to make sure a compliment is constructive:

1. Use positive words (e.g. "great," "wonderful," "excellent").

2. Cite specifically what went well.

3. Acknowledge the result (e.g. increased sales, changed opinions, getting approval).

4. Thank them.

In practice, it may sound something like, "Joan, thanks for all your wonderful work on the Smith proposal. I liked how you included research and data to back up the key points. I am sure this will result in our firm getting more business. Thanks again for your effort and hard work."

Don't Mix In Criticism

When giving a constructive compliment, don't mix in a negative comment. Focus on the positive. I am not saying that a project-review meeting can't cover what went well and what could be improved, but a constructive compliment can be powerful when allowed to stand on its own.

Related: To Motivate Your Employees, Give Honest Feedback

Put It In Writing

If you give a constructive compliment verbally, you can also choose to put it in writing via email, or even better with a handwritten note. In a digital world, the latter has a personal touch and makes more of an impact. In fact, former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi used to send thank you notes to her executive team members's parents saying, "Thank you for the gift of your child to our company."

Make It Public

A constructive compliment has even more power if it is delivered in a staff or company-wide meeting. As the old saying goes, "Praise in public, correct in private."

Make the constructive compliment a regular part of your day. As Walmart founder Sam Walton once said, "Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish."

Shawn Doyle

President, New Light Learning and Development Inc.

Shawn Doyle is a professional speaker, author and executive coach. He is the president of New Light Learning & Development, a company that specializes in training and leadership-development programs.

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