Training & Development

Quint column: Make positive feedback work for your business

Quint Studer.

I have written about the power and importance of positive recognition of employees. A compliment to an employee for a specific behavior goes a long way.

There are so many fantastic outcomes. It helps the employee feel good about the action being recognized. Because behavior that is recognized gets repeated, the employee is likely to perform that behavior again. Other employees will see what actions are being recognized and often follow suit.

Seems simple. But in many cases, people can take something relatively simple and make it more complex than it needs to be.

Research shows that it takes three positives to one negative for an employee to feel good about the messenger. When I present to groups I ask attendees if they have a supervisor. Almost all say yes.

“If you received a message via text, voice or e-mail from your boss asking you to call them at the first break, would your first thought be ‘Here comes more reward and recognition?’”

They laugh.

Then I ask: “If I ask your direct reports the same question, what would their reaction be?”

With wide open eyes, the group often realizes that their own staff would be more likely to think, “What have I done wrong now?”

I still struggle with the 3:1 ratio myself. Why do many of us struggle with recognizing positive actions?

Often, leaders are promoted because they are good problem solvers, valued for spotting what is wrong.

When we move into leadership, we continue to solve problems and identify issues — all good things and valuable skills to have.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not being assertive about noticing what is right. And that works against achieving results.

Another reason recognition may be tough ties back to a question we’ve almost all asked or heard: “Do you mean we should recognize people for doing their job?”

Yes, that’s just what we need to do.

Organizations can get way too hung up on only recognizing people for what they call “above and beyond.” Early on, should you be recognizing for the basics like smiling at customers? Absolutely. But as the organization matures so do the actions that get recognized.

We recognize our children for doing the basics. From crawling to walking to going on the potty, as these tasks are learned, then the recognition moves to a higher level. The same goes in the workplace.

In the spirit of improving in this skill, here are some do’s and don’ts in recognition.

— Be specific. Saying “nice job” pales in comparison to “Shannon, I saw how you took time to explain our product to that customer. This really makes a difference.”

— Compliment in public. Customers like to hear employees get complimented. Co-workers learn from it. At the Wahoos we recognize employees on top of the dugout at each game. After the visible recognition game, attendees send names of exemplary employees to suggest they get recognized. In skill building sessions with companies, I will take about four people and compliment three. I say hello to the fourth, however I don’t compliment them or say anything negative. I then ask the fourth person what they would do? They always say I will do what the others did. Ninety percent of people will move to the behavior getting recognized positively.

— Tell employees you are changing your behavior. Even positive change can create fear and unnecessary anxiety. If you have a supervisor who has been light on positive feedback, then all sudden, without warning, they start complimenting people, the first thought might be “What new medication is he on?”

It is fine to explain to staff that you are committed to being a better leader and one area you want to do better on is positive feedback. Explain that you will be increasing your positive recognition of employees. You can even use humor that you did not want them to be concerned with the change.

— Be specific with compliments. There are times when a thank-you to the entire work force makes sense. After the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, the management thanked everyone in the organization. But be specific. You can still let those who did not perform well know that while they are part of the team, they still need to look at their individual performance. Wide-ranging compliments can demotivate your strong performers if they see that poorer performers get equal recognition.

— Address poor performance, too. Employees can hear compliments on their good performance while being coached on areas where they must improve. Even an employee who receives positive feedback in some areas ultimately may be let go if the poor performing areas are not addressed.

Don’t believe the myth that your employees can “get a big head” if complimented. Stepping up your compliments, if handled correctly, can transform the performance of your workforce, decrease turnover and make your organization a better place to work.