Managing People

Why Every Company Should Embrace a Culture of Positive Feedback

A new study published by Harvard Business School proves that employees perform better when they receive positive feedback. See why.



Two weeks ago, I gave a task to my graphic designer. I explained some of the specifications and asked him to come up with a stunning design. After discussing other necessary issues, I reminded him once again that I wanted it to look amazing.

The next day, I received an email about the design and went on to check it out. It looked thrown together, far from what I expected. I was furious because I knew what he was capable of, and in the heat of anger, I was about to contact him and ask why he made such a mess of the design (and that was the kindest question I had in mind, did I mention I was furious?)

But then I decided to hold on for a while. Later that day, I sat down and came up with a more precise description of what I wanted.

When I contacted him, I first of all thanked him for his effort and timely response to my request, and then went on to explain quite honestly that I expected something better. I pointed out some of the awesome jobs he had completed in the past and told him he can do something that good for me too. And finally, I gave him the more precise description I came up with.

The next day, I received the graphic work, and it looked “amazing”, much better than I imagined it would be. I’m not sure I would have gotten the same results if I had not striven to give feedback that reminded him of what a great designer he usually was, and why he can do better than he did initially on this work.

But do I have solid reason to believe that my designer performed better because I tried to remain positive? Absolutely!

The power of positive feedback

A new study published by Harvard Business School proves that employees perform better when they receive positive feedback. The study shows that when people are reminded of times in the past when they had performed excellently, they become more creative, make better decisions, and feel less stress.

“In the study, participants visited the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and were asked to solve problems. Approximately half of the participants were told to ask friends and family members to send them an email just prior to their participation that described a time when the participant was at his or her best. Overwhelmingly, those who read positive statements about their past actions were more creative in their approach, more successful at problem-solving and less stressed out than their counterparts. For instance, participants had three minutes to complete Duncker’s candle problem. Fifty-one percent who had read emails prior to the task were able to successfully complete it; only 19% of those who did not receive ‘best-self activation’ emails were able to solve it. Those who received praise were also significantly less stressed than the control group.” – Forbes

In effect, what this study proves is what we already know: People work better when they are commended for their accomplishments.

For some reason however, many people in management still believe that regularly pointing out flaws and avenues for improvement is the best way to motivate employees. The existence of a management practice that requires each employee to sit through a (mostly negative) critique of their performance every year proves this.

Late last year, I also published the results of a research work that revealed the major reasons why employees experience bad days at work, and the third highest reason is “Lack of praise or recognition for the work I do.” So besides degrading the quality of their work, lack of commendation could also make employees hate their job.

How to foster a culture of positive feedback

1. Re-engineer your appraisal process

Apparently, everyone hates yearly appraisals – employees, managers, and even HR practitioners. This management practice essentially ruins relationships around the workplace. As a result, some companies have dropped yearly appraisals and opted for performance feedback in real-time. Accenture, a global consulting firm, made the headlines last year when they announced their plans to replace yearly appraisals with timely feedback from managers.

2. Help employees focus on the tasks they did well

As my personal experience and the results of the Harvard study have shown, employees perform better when they are reminded of things they did really well in the past. In essence, if you are about to start a task or a project and you want your employees to be at their best, remind them of a time when they were at their best, commend them for their contribution to the success of that past task, and express confidence that they will perform well in current tasks too.

3. Say it

A common belief among people in management is that giving positive feedback to employees is not really necessary, or that it should be minimized – how wrong! There is this story of a manager who refrained from commending one of his employees for an awesome job because, well, she had done some very awesome jobs previously that week and the manager thought he had commended her enough. However, what he might have failed to note is that his previous commendations may be the reason she continued to produce stellar results.

Simply put, if you think an employee has done a great job, give positive feedback it every time! Simply say it.


4. Criticize constructively

There are people who believe constructive criticism has no value in manager-employee relations, I’m not one of them. I generally prefer to give (and receive) constructive criticism.

Which would you prefer to hear after putting effort into a task but falling short:

This is the crappiest job I’ve seen this week. I mean the stats are correct, but your presentation is laughable. Were you half asleep when you wrote this report?


You really put a lot of effort into this report, I appreciate how carefully you worked on the stats, it’s thoroughly researched. You can however improve your explanation of the data in sections 2 and 3. Grab a copy of the report I wrote last month and study my presentation of those sections and try to come up with something great.

In truth, constructive criticism which usually includes tips for improvement works better than outright, sharp cutting criticism.

However, there are times when straightforward criticism is required, such as when an employee repeatedly makes a mistake or falls short despite previous corrections. When this becomes necessary, it should be given out. Employees are adults, they can handle it.

5. Encourage managers to give out spontaneous, honest commendation

Some managers may be good at commending people while many others don’t even know the meaning of the word. It is best to promote a culture of commendation among managers like you promote other formal policies. Simply telling managers to commend others will hardly work though, so it’s best to remind them for a while possibly through an email at the start of each week, until it becomes a part of them.

6. Encourage employees to commend each other

Commendation does not always have to come from superiors to be effective. In the Harvard study considered above, the group that performed a great deal better did so because they received an email from a friend, family member, or coworker. Therefore, employees should be encouraged to honestly commend one another whenever possible. Alexander Kjerulf, the founder of Wohoo Inc, suggests that employees learn to send emails of appreciation to fellow employees. The emails should be short and personalized. A good example would be:

Hi Darla,

I’m just writing to thank you for the well prepared stats you presented during our last meeting. They really gave us all a clearer understanding of the tasks at hand.


What can you learn from this?

Frankly, giving positive feedback isn’t easy. It takes effort to tell people around you that you value their input to the success of your activities together. But those who have embraced a culture of commendation only have good things to say about it. It may only take a few words to brighten the day of someone you work with, which, as it turns out, also brightens your day.

As an individual, it is important to learn to commend others. If you are in a management position, take action to promote this culture among employees, managers, and everyone else. It clearly leads to better performance. 

By: Mesheal Fegor
Sales & Support

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