Anyone that occupies a leadership role ought to be aware that there’s often a big problem with feedback. Many employees don’t like it. So if you want to have engaged and productive people, you need to think hard about how you manage this.

I’m not, of course, talking about all feedback. As social beings, we humans need feedback from the groups we inhabit, whether at work, at home or amongst friends. It’s just that maladroit, negative feedback is utterly counter-productive.

Feedback that arises from the problem-solving mindset tends to focus exclusively on negatives – what the employee has to stop doing for a problem to go away. However, enduring change tends to come about when feedback is organically linked to what’s working, what’s going well, and how that can be nurtured and fortified. This is the kind of feedback that lies at the heart of Appreciative Inquiry.

There’s confirmation about the positive effects of well-crafted, strength-enhancing feedback from the world of neuroscience. In a recent CIPD blog, Jan Hills (who integrates neuroscience findings into her leadership consultancy) cites evidence demonstrating that we have a primal need to be positively connected to others: neuroimaging techniques show that the brain’s social reward system becomes highly active when people receive positive feedback from others.

Social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman found that our reward centres light up during neuroimaging scans even when we don’t know the people who are giving us positive feedback. In the experiments that he and his colleagues conducted with volunteers, the latter were prepared to give all the money they received for participating in the research in exchange for the positive letters that were read out to them. As Hill succinctly puts it: “We think money is the biggest motivator but it seems positive recognition is more powerful.”

An increase in positive recognition and praise for employees at work conveyed sincerely and publicly, can be a potent motivator. However, the positives have to be noticed first. Those problem-solving goggles make them invisible. Time for a new set of appreciative lenses.

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