Why positive feedback is important!

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Leadership ELT
Anna Malik, Leadership in ELT Graduate at Oxford TEFL

Imagine being managed by someone who constantly offers constructive positive feedback and praise, someone who appreciates your hard work and takes time to make you aware of that. Would you feel motivated to carry on to the best of your abilities? Would you feel motivated to develop? Now imagine that manager leaving and being replaced by someone who is very reluctant to express satisfaction with your work and whose feedback seems to be limited to constructive criticism. Would lack of appreciation have a potential to negatively affect your motivation? What could you do about it?

In discussions about feedback we usually focus on delivering constructive criticism. The value of positive feedback seems to be underestimated. The busy managers and leaders tend to be preoccupied with delivering negative feedback as it would be more urgent to deal with problems than praise the well performing employees. In this article I would like to discuss three reasons why positive feedback is important and should be delivered as much as constructive criticism. I will also try to establish the possible correlation of positive feedback and motivation.

Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs

To begin with, we should look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Fig. 1 below), which presents the stages human motivation moves through. According to Maslow, humans will not be able to move up to the higher level needs if the lower level needs are not satisfied. It can be observed that having fulfilled the three bottom categories of needs which are physiological, safety and love/belonging, we move up to the needs for self-esteem. Especially in the working environment, it is easy for people to lose their confidence and therefore helping them develop the sense of achievement is crucial. Lack of positive feedback might affect our confidence and sense of achievement.  The need to be valued is a very strong human need which could be sought among family, peers or in a working environment and lack of which might have a negative effect on performance. It might hinder the person’s creativity and spontaneity as well as affect one’s problem solving abilities. Moreover, lack of confidence might also hinder self-actualization and therefore stop individuals from developing their full potential.

Secondly, positive feedback boosts our sense of achievement which, according to Kilton (2009), is a powerful source of motivation. He refers to a study which was carried out in the 50s and as a result of which Frederick Herzberg determined that self achievement, defined as ‘an internal sense of achievement and being valued,’ is our primary driver. He also claims that ‘we do not seem to be able to fully sustain our internal sense of value without the occasional external reinforcement’ and therefore positive feedback or recognition coming from our line manager is crucial. It helps us build our confidence, feel valued and respected, which is essential for further development.

According to Kilton (2009), effective positive feedback should be:

·         relevant – to the person’s career, tasks, current role and situation

·         specific – it should not be a general statement but rather refer to very specific achievements

·         timely – the quicker the better

·         valuable – should fulfil the internal need for being appreciated

·         accurate – negative feedback might bring negative results and the impression of the leader or manager not caring about the situation

Kilton emphasizes that feedback that doesn’t meet the above criteria might appear false. It might also come across as favourism, which could potentially have a negative impact on the employee and the team.

Finally, positive feedback has the power to reinforce desirable behaviour and lead to better performance. Pink, in his talk entitled ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’ discussed how the traditional behaviourist psychology is irrelevant in today’s world. He points out that the system of reward and punishment does not work and proposes a shift towards a different model of motivation. His model is based on three key elements which are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. He claims that employees feel motivated if they can choose for themselves, work to get better results for the purpose which is bigger and better than themselves. Reflecting on Pink’s model, we could argue that positive feedback has a huge impact on the feeling of mastery and has potential to motivate and reinforce positive behaviour more effectively than any material rewards.

To conclude, positive feedback has a potential to boost confidence and seems to be a powerful motivational tool. Not only that, it is also a tool to reassure people and show them that they are on the right track. However, as mentioned before, some managers are reluctant to praise. Therefore, the question is, rather than feeling demotivated, how can we be proactive and what can we do about it? As a response to this question, Foord (2012) encourages us to ‘rather than wait for it, go out and seek it.’ Therefore, rather than wait for feedback from the reluctant managers, we should ask them for it directly. Our attitude might lead to them feelling encouraged to provide it in the future. We could also refer to other employees who are directly affected by the quality of our work and ask them for feedback. In his article ‘Does my bum look big in this’ Foord (2012) provides us with some practical tips for asking for feedback. He also emphasizes the importance of 360 degrees feedback which will provide us with a clearer and more complete picture of our progress and what impact it has on others.

This blog post was written by Anna Malik as part of her Leadership in ELT course at Oxford TEFL. If you would like to find out more about how you can develop your leadership skills in ELT, click here.

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