Actions to take: Give far more positive feedback than negative feedback. A ratio to shoot for is 5-to-1, even with poor performers. Do not underestimate positive feedback's ability to successfully guide employee behavior.
Better-boss.com advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.
Managers are problem-solvers. Those of us who don't come by it naturally get pushed into it. It makes sense why. We are imbued with the formal authority of the organization, so we make the call in tough situations. We carry over this mentality to most aspects of our work. We end up looking at our entire job as a series of "problems to be solved."
And when it comes to managing people, that's where we mess up. It is easy to focus on your employees' issues, the things that need to be fixed. You are in that problem-solving mode. The negatives are (often) the things that annoy you. The negatives are the things that other employees complain to you about. The negatives are things that might make you look bad to your boss.
Because we're in this mindset, it can be easy to find ourselves giving a lot of negative feedback. It takes time to come up with feedback to give our employees. When we're busy (and who isn't), we give feedback on whatever comes to mind first—usually, the problems.
Do not slip into this trap. Make sure you are finding time to give positive feedback. Much more positive feedback than negative feedback. If you need a goal to shoot for, 5-to-1 is often cited. Five times as much positive feedback as negative. It is fantastically important. Here are a few reasons why.
For feedback to be trusted, it must be accurate
This is true, of course, for each individual piece of feedback. If you give feedback based on misinformation, you'll seriously undermine your credibility.
It is also true in aggregate. When you sum up all the feedback you've given an employee, it must paint an accurate picture of your employee's work. If it doesn't, you have failed just as much as if you gave a completely unfounded piece of feedback. Most people are doing most things well. Even your worst employees, frankly, are doing more things right than wrong. There is a reason that 50% is a failing grade in school.
Look at the feedback you've given over the past 6 months. When you review the sum of an employee's feedback, does it paint the picture of the employee that you know? If it doesn't look accurate to you, it doesn't feel accurate to your employees. They probably are not keeping a documented record of all the feedback you give them. But they have a sense for how often your feedback is positive and how often it is negative. 50-50 isn't good enough. After all, imagine if your boss thought you were only doing half of your work correctly.
Positive feedback takes far less time
I'm not talking about the feedback conversation itself. Positive or negative, giving feedback will take you less than a minute (when done correctly).
However, it is much easier to give positive feedback, and it is much easier to receive positive feedback. With corrective feedback, there is a great deal more self-management that needs to happen in the preparation. Is the wording purely factual and 100% accurate? Am I in a good mood? Am I prepared to keep my tone neutral? Am I prepared to stay sympathetic to the employee while talking about this thing that frustrates me? That 10 second feedback conversation might take you 10 minutes to mentally work yourself up to do.
The employee is going to have a similar mental journey after the fact. They will have the knee-jerk denial reaction. Then they will need to work through it and come out on the other side. You may be a perfect manager with a feather-light touch when it comes to feedback. You still can't fully erase the feeling that negative feedback means "you did something wrong." Your employee will take time process through it, and it will slow down other work.
Positive feedback doesn't require this time. People like receiving positive feedback, and most managers like (or like well enough) to give it. If you flub the wording a little, people will forgive in a way that they don't with negative feedback. Positive feedback generally doesn't require you to self-monitor your emotions or tone. After the fact, the employee may continue thinking about it, but not in a way that distracts them from other work.
Quality diminishes when work goes unnoticed
At one of my jobs, every manager had to submit a monthly report of their activities and the activities of their department: highlights, important milestones, issues faced, that sort of thing. Early on, I poured a lot of work into these. I prided myself on giving my boss an accurate picture of both the successes and the challenges I was facing. She never mentioned the reports. As months went by, I spent less time on them, just doing enough to call it finished. After about 18 months, I stopped submitting them altogether. She never mentioned the reports. I was promoted, and she no longer supervised me. Only then did she say, "You know, I was pretty surprised when you stopped submitting your monthly reports. They really helped me know what was going on, and they're technically required. Other than that, your work was great."
As I've said elsewhere in this blog: work that is not communicated is not finished. That goes for managers too. It is not enough to notice your employees' work. You must tell them you noticed, or they will assume that work isn't important. We're all busy. We don't have time to waste on unimportant things. Just like I stopped doing those reports, your employees will stop (or minimize their time on) work that isn't getting them positive feedback.
Positive feedback provides more guidance than we give it credit for. We fall into the trap of thinking that negative feedback is the "real" way to guide employees toward more effective work. We give positive feedback to sort of "pay our due" for giving negative.
That thinking is totally inaccurate. In fact, aside from egregious errors, it is possible to successfully guide your employees' work using only positive feedback. If you've got an employee that shows up late sometimes, give positive feedback when they're on time. If you've got an employee that misses details, give positive feedback when they get the nuances right. Positive feedback literally tells employees, "Do more of this." Do not trick yourself into thinking that it is just praise.