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By Peggy Simonsen

When we hear of the need for feedback from managers to employees, we tend to think only of corrective feedback--improving performance problems, for example. Performance problems are barriers that must be overcome of course, for success on the present job as well as for future opportunity. But feedback also needs to be positive to reinforce good behavior. It is the combination of both positive and corrective feedback that results in employees changing their behavior.

I once had a manager say to me, "Why should I have to give positive feedback? They're only doing their job. That's what they're paid to do!" My response was, "Do you want them to continue doing it?"

Positive Feedback Motivates

Positive feedback supports employee motivation. It is always nice to hear, but is essential when employees have gone the extra mile, overcome a crisis, or put in unusual effort to achieve a goal or meet a deadline.

You could argue that is what they are paid to do; but if you value the behavior, positive feedback rewards and reinforces it. Just as the steps to giving corrective feedback make it more valuable and actionable, so do the steps to positive feedback.

A "good job" kind of comment is better than no response; but specific, targeted comments are more meaningful. For example, if you want to acknowledge an employee's willingness to work overtime when needed, you might just say thank you. But taking a few minutes to say specifically what you appreciated about the employee's efforts, the impact it has on the team or the output of work, plus a comment about the future, make positive feedback much more meaningful. Taking time to provide that kind of positive feedback reinforces the very behavior you value (See side bar).

Sometimes positive reinforcement is needed after the employee demonstrates the corrected behavior.

Let's look at an example: Joe creates a negative climate in the work group. He's a complainer, particularly about company systems and procedures. His manager recognizes that Joe's attitude and complaints have a negative impact on the team, and must be addressed.

As a first step, the manager identifies specific occasions where she observed Joe's behavior that she wants to address. In preparation for giving feedback, she identifies the impact of the negative behavior on the team and on Joe's reputation in the firm. She prepares examples of the changed behavior she wanted Joe to work on and then met with Joe to discuss it. Her purpose in addressing what some might consider "personality characteristics" is to help Joe change the behavior that was getting in the way of the team's work and Joe's success.

The Second Step. Joe's manager knows the first step in changing behavior is the awareness of it as a problem, and so the need for corrective feedback. The second step is willingness to work on the problem, and her approach in giving feedback helps Joe accept the problem instead of becoming defensive. Together they identify actions that could contribute to Joe's efforts to change, because behavior change requires practice of the new, desired behavior. As the manager, she is willing to deal with some of the procedures that cause Joe's frustration and negativism. She knows also that positive reinforcement would be needed each time she observed the desired behavior by Joe.

The second step of the feedback process is identifying the impact of the behavior on the employee's goals or the team's success. Career discussions with an employee, help the supervisor know what his or her goals are and what must be done to address a behavior change accordingly. It becomes a clear case of "what's in it for me?"

In the case of Joe, the impact of the negative attitude might be stated something like this. "Joe, you have identified a goal to have more opportunity to work on cross-functional teams to broaden your base of expertise. If your reputation for complaining precedes you, other team leaders will be less likely to select you. Even with your technical expertise, you may not be seen as a team player."

In stating the desirable behavior, Joe's manager might say something like, "What teams need is someone who can help analyze the pros and cons of a situation without sounding critical of others. Let's discuss what you need to do to change your approach."

Behavior as a Controllable Factor

Giving corrective or positive feedback requires the manager to be aware of individual employee's behavior. It means approaching behavior as a controllable factor, not writing it off as an unchangeable character trait. After providing corrective feedback and reinforcing the employee's attempts to change, if the desired change hasn't occurred, the manager has a choice to make. Should he or she persevere or put his or her energy into developing someone who is more responsive?

The manager is not being asked to be a therapist just to make sure his or her employees are clear about expectations and provide some guidance to move in the right direction. A good manager is one about whom people say, "he or she always gave me good feedback. He or she acknowledged when I did something well and corrected me when I needed it." *

Reprinted with permission of Insight, the magazine of the Illinois Society of CPAs.

Peggy Simonsen is president of Career Directions, Inc. a career development and performance management consulting firm in Rolling Meadows, Il. She is the author of Promoting a Development Culture in Your Organization: Using Career Development as a Change Agent, published by Davies-Black
Publishing. You can reach Simonsen at 847/870-1290.
Giving Effective Positive Feedback

Clear, Concrete and Specific Comments

"Sally, I want to compliment you on the excellent job you did on the project you completed last week. I know you had to work long hours to complete it, but the planning and leadership you provided to your team made the difference in the project's success."

Impact of the Behavior on You, Others and the Employee's Goals

"I am pleased I don't have to provide tight supervision to your work, and I have had feedback from some of your team that they like working with you and learn from you."

Reinforcement of the Positive Behavior

"I expect we can call on you in the future when we have an ambiguous assignment that needs clarification and direction, as this one did. Senior management is pleased with the outcome of the project and recognizes your role in making it happen."

Employee Input

"Do you have any thoughts about the process or outcome you would like to discuss? What upcoming projects would you like to join?"

Check for Understanding and Acknowledgment

"How would you summarize your role in this project? Do you agree the success of this project was worth the extra effort you and others put in?" *

John F. Burke, CPA
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