Feedback: The Most Undervalued EQ Skill

4 May 2018

Feedback is an invaluable tool to enhance team and individual performance. It’s your gift of data to your team and directly tied to psychological safety. It’s also grossly misunderstood, undervalued and underutilized. According to psychologist Richard L. Williams, there are only two types of feedback that matter:

  • Positive Feedback– For behavior repetition
  • Corrective Feedback – For behavior change

There are, however, two additional forms of feedback that all of us engage at times:

  • Insignificant Feedback– For a minimal response
  • Abusive Feedback– For an angry and defensive response

Since insignificant or abusive feedback results in inconsequential or hostile responses, and since the ratio of Positive to Corrective feedback is five to one – Positive Feedback is a go-to skill in tool in your emotional intelligence toolbox.

Feedback and Psychological Safety

In Project Aristotle, Google’s 2-year study of 180 teams to identify the top factors correlated with high-performing teams, psychological safety was perhaps the most critical. Teams with psychological safety are comfortable taking risks and speaking their minds. They know their colleagues will give them feedback and that their actions will be supported. They know they won’t be ridiculed if they suggest or promote something that doesn’t go right. They also need and receive acknowledgement of their significance, competence and worth from one another.

In other words, there is a constant feedback loop that empowers team members to be candid, transparent and always growing toward a greater purpose.

Accentuate the Positive

The Five to One Positive to Corrective Ratio Rule can seem like a hefty assignment. But let’s look at it from another perspective. Ever lost a really great employee and not know why? To gain a perspective, think about a time when you were repeatedly denied constructive feedback. What happened?

Probably the same thing that happened to that fantastic employee. You drifted away and eventually left – the job or relationship. Withholding feedback is actually a form of psychological punishment and people will actually accept negative feedback to fill the void of no feedback.

If you still think this stuff is fluff, consider this from the Harvard Business Review (October 25, 2016):

High performers offer more positive feedback to peers; in fact, high-performing teams share nearly six times more positive feedback than average teams. Meanwhile, low-performing teams share nearly twice as much negative feedback than average teams.

And this from the Harvard Business Review (March 13, 2013):

Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity…..(W)ith the vast majority of the leaders in our database who have no outstanding weaknesses, positive feedback is what motivates them to continue improvement.

Motivating New Behaviors, Reinforcing Existing Behaviors

Positive feedback is used to motivate new behaviors and reinforce existing behaviors – and it works equally well in your professional and personal life. In general, people have two different preferences in receiving feedback. Some like it warm, thoughtful and caring. Others like it direct and competence-based. But regardless, here’s a tried and true formula, again, from psychologist Richard L. Williams:

1. Describe ONE specific, timely and positive behavior
2. Describe its positive impact on you
3. Describe how you feel about this behavior
4. Describe why you feel this way (the because part…it helps me, helps the team, helps communication)

Here’s an example: You have a competent staff member with a messy office. You’d really like her office to be tidier because she sees clients there. You understand that people have different styles for organizing and you know she can find anything on her desk – despite the piles. But it bugs you and you’ve asked her many times to clean her office, and even wondered about putting it into her performance evaluation. She did once clean up, but then slowly slipped back into her old ways.

One day, out of the blue, she cleans up her office again. You have two options: Say nothing because she should have been doing this all along. Or say something so she further understands the positive impact of her behavior on you. Using the formula above, something like:

Wow! Your office looks great! It’s warm and welcoming to our clients, and that’s an important value to me and our company. I really appreciate your efforts to clean up. I know it’s not your natural organizing system, and I know you’re an organized person. And I’m relieved because now all of us together make the same statement to clients.

Remember the Five to One Golden Rule Ratio!

Most of us tend to focus more on the negative than the positive. We don’t use our words to effectively motivate positive change. The Five to One Positive to Corrective Ratio Rule takes practice and intention. Feedback needs to be consistently specific and genuine.  For example, if one week later your staff member continues to maintain a clean office – seize the opportunity. Tell her that you see the effort she’s making in keeping it clean –that it makes you happy when clients come to her office – that it makes a difference on morale. Let her know the positive impact of her behavior on you.

This Stuff Really Works

Positive feedback really works – whether managing up, down or across in your professional life – or with your kids, spouse, partner, friends and family in your personal life.

If you’re still on the fence about the benefits of Positive Feedback, here’s an interesting fact about married couples from the Harvard Business Review (March 13, 2013):

The single biggest determinant is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another. The optimal ratio is …five positive comments for every negative one. For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was 0.77 to 1 — or something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.

We know EQ is a greater predictor of success than IQ. Other studies consistently report subject expertise accounts for 15% of job success, while people skills accounts for 85% of success. Whether in your personal or professional life, relationships are the glue and feedback is an invaluable tool to enhance team and individual performance, psychological safety, meaning and fulfillment.

In the next article, we’ll look at how to deliver corrective feedback – especially when you’re hot and triggered.