A close friend and mentor once told me, “young strong leaders typically aren’t good at positive reinforcement because they don’t need it themselves.” He was right, I was awful at giving positive reinforcement. In fact, I don’t think I gave any of my employees positive feedback or encouragement when they did something right, but I could quickly point out when they did something wrong. I never quite understood the value of positive reinforcement until it came together for me while reading an excerpt out of the book 212 Degree Leadership.
Imagine you are sitting blindfolded with a tinker toy model on a table in front of you, just out of reach. Your task is to reproduce the model in less than two minutes. You cannot touch the model, but you do have a supervisor who can provide you with limited feedback and you have all the supplies you need. Unfortunately, your supervisor has been instructed to provide you with negative feedback only!
Can you imagine how you might feel? You do not know exactly what to make and every time you grab the wrong part you are told “no” or “wrong.” If you happen to grab the right part, you hear nothing at all. Not very inspiring, is it? Yet the simple demonstration represents the disconnect people all over the world frequently feel when the vision is not clear and they are not supported with positive direction and feedback.
Frustration. Anger. Anxiety. Depression. At that very moment I understood how detrimental and demotivating only giving negative feedback was to my employees. Not an ideal working environment for anyone. Plus, it’s exhausting and stressful for the person delivering the feedback.
Now let’s try another round of the exercise. This time, imagine you are still blindfolded with two minutes to reproduce the model, but your supervisor can now provide you with positive feedback. In other words, if you grab a part you need, your supervisor will say “yes” or “right.”
Self-Esteem. Motivation. Confidence. These are the feelings that come to mind when I’m receiving positive reinforcement, giving me the physiological freedom to be creative and do great things.
We all know that positive reinforcement makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future but we often focus our time on what employees are doing wrong versus reinforcing what they are doing right. As I change and grow, I’m learning the value of giving much more positive than negative feedback. Making this shift in my approach was transformational to the culture of my organization, my employees well being and attitudes, and my own personal development and well being.
Try it for a week. I started small by creating two reminders each day in my Google Calendar reminding me to give positive feedback to an employee that is deserving of the praise.
You can also use the five to one method; for every time you offer corrective action or constructive criticism to an employee, make sure you acknowledge them for five things they’ve done right.
Just remember to keep it authentic though. Too much positive reinforcement can lead to praise overload, diminishing the value.