Catch them doing something right: driving performance with positive feedback

By Sonia Tallarida

Telling an employee what you expect them to do goes only so far. To get the most out of your workforce, you need to build engagement. Increasingly, positive feedback is being seen as a key generator of the extra energy required to get the job done.

My 10 year old nephew came home the other day excited to share with me a fable he’d heard at school:

“Two frogs fell into a pail of milk.  Their friends all gathered around the top, concerned for them.  The frogs started jumping.  The friends started yelling, “Stop it, you’ll exhaust yourself. There’s no point anyway. You’ll never make it. No frog can jump that high”.  One frog soon gave up and drowned.  The other frog kept jumping.  The more they yelled at him to give up, the more he jumped.  Soon all his jumping churned the milk into butter, and he climbed up and out.  The observers cheered and asked why he kept going, when it all seemed so hopeless.  It turns out the frog was deaf, and he thought they had all been cheering him on.

Dr Martin Seligman would say that the frog’s perception of positivity most likely engaged higher levels of performance.  Seligman is a leader in positive psychology, the “science” of praise.

But how much approval is too much? It seems we are much more likely to under than over praise. In a recent study, Seligman demonstrated that out of five pieces of feedback, people forgot the four positive items, and remembered the one negative.  But don’t let that turn you off, the key here is that people might remember criticism but they almost certainly respond to praise.  How much of what you are saying to people is erased by a negative follow up phrase?

Focusing on the positive has real impact on productivity.  You’ve felt it yourself – whether playing sport, or feeling disheartened on a project – a positive word can make all the difference.

Done correctly, catching someone doing something right, and making a point of it, will indeed drive high performance.

For further insights into Martin Seligman’s theory of positive psychology, check our his Ted Talk here.

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