Jody Gold explains The Golden Ratio needed to make your organization a healthy, high-feedback culture.
Agile, responsive, and effective organizations are characterized by high-feedback, high-learning cultures. These are required to correct to target, optimize resources, learn and behave differently, or to do more of what’s already working well.
It’s easy to build an effective feedback loop into an air conditioner. Make the thermostat feed its measurements back into the controller to determine whether to keep pumping out the cool, or lay off the throttle because the target has been reached. The compressor doesn’t hold a grudge or work less hard when the thermostat tells it the room is still too warm. The thermostat doesn’t withhold feedback because last time the controller stopped talking to it for a week, compromising other projects.
But people do. Our different perspectives, projections, and priorities can distort or derail the delivery, reception, and value of essential feedback.
Appreciative and Constructive Feedback
There are two types of feedback—positive and negative. Positive feedback encourages more of what’s already happening. Negative feedback impels what’s happening to change. The concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback make sense in mechanical systems. For people, not so much. A better name for the kind of feedback that emphasizes what’s already working is ‘appreciative feedback’. Like appreciating assets, we want more of these behaviors and the results they create.
‘Constructive’ captures the idea better than ‘negative’ feedback. ‘Negative’ feedback can affect rapid change, but too much of it restricts risk-taking, innovation, ownership, and performance by individuals and teams. To be usefully delivered and received, this kind of feedback should obviously be intended to build performance and capacity in others. Most people need some help and practice to give or receive this kind of feedback well. I’ll write about that in a future article.
The ‘simple trick’ that the best teams, parents, and partners practice, is to focus more on what’s working well than what isn’t. A lot more.
The Golden Ratio–5:1
The question isn’t which is better, appreciative or constructive feedback. Both are needed. It’s the ratio of one to the other that’s critical. In The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio in the Harvard Business Review, Zenger and Folkman link a five to one appreciative to constructive feedback ratio to the highest performing individuals and teams. This ratio builds people, partnerships, and productivity more effectively than either too much praise or too much criticism.
Consider that building individual and team capacity is similar to the process by which a snake grows. Nourishment—appreciative feedback—makes it bigger and stronger. But it also needs something abrasive—constructive feedback, what’s not working—to rub against to shed its skin.
Constructive feedback provides the necessary friction to slough off the limiting habits and behaviors that keep us small and ineffective.
Catch Them Doing Something Right
It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle of concern, fear, and worry. But we find more problems and less energy to solve them, the more we focus on everything that isn’t working.
I’m working with the CEO of a US engineering company that’s merging with a bigger international group. Production is moving overseas. R&D will stay in the US. The US group must innovate to survive. According to the CEO, the senior vice president of engineering uses a command and control style of leadership that stifles creativity, risk-taking, task ownership, and engagement amongst his direct reports. I asked the CEO what specific evidence supported his concerns, and what the cost of this behavior is to the company now, as well as the expected impact over the next year. I also asked, “when have you seen him give his team more autonomy, and room to experiment and learn?”
He was surprised how easy it was to find a key counter-example to the narrative he had. We explored the tangible and intangible impact of this other behavior. I asked, “when are you going to tell him what you saw in his leadership that led to these results, and why that was important to the company and to you?”
“That’s a good idea. I’d never considered that…I’m going to tell him next Tuesday when we meet.”
In this conversation, the CEO wasn’t ignoring real problems. He was finding the capabilities that could be enhanced and leveraged to solve them.
Do It Now
This isn’t rocket surgery. People want to be acknowledged and appreciated for their contributions at work almost as much as they want to be compensated for them. And, the five to one ratio is just as important personally as professionally. The reasons we think we don’t have time to be nice at work are not only wrong, but counterproductive. You don’t need role authority to give more appreciative feedback and build more capacity, resilience, and performance around you.
You do need to keep what’s important to you in the front of your mind and be clear about what behaviors and mindsets support those goals. It takes discipline to identify what we want ahead of time and encourage it, rather than reacting to what we obviously don’t want in the moment.
Here’s an easy challenge for you.
- Give three pieces of appreciative feedback before you go to sleep tonight.
- Be specific. Tell the person what they did that worked.
- Be personal. Tell them what the impact was for you.
- Tell them why it was important to you, your team, or your company.
Here are some examples of appreciative feedback to prime the pump.
- I like that you picked up the dead leaves from the Jade plant. I’m used to being the only one who notices or does anything about that kind of stuff. It feels like we’re partners here, both making things easier for the other.
- Thanks for doing the final edits on that marketing two-pager. I’m proud of what we made together and eager to share it with potential clients. Your extra effort and attention to detail tell me you’ve got my back.
This is too easy not to try. The quality and capacity of your personal and professional relationships is too important to leave to chance.
Please post one outcome you experience when you intentionally share more specific and sincere appreciative feedback.
Photo credit: Flickr/Body&Mind Solutions