The power of positive feedback

Positive feedback can make the difference in your work and relationships.

Repeat after me: Feedback can be positive, too!

Sounds obvious, right? But for most people, feedback is associated with criticism, correction and negativity. It leads to a vicious spiral of blame, shame and pain. This bias for negativity is the reason feedback often sparks fear, not joy.

For one New York hospital, going negative had them going nowhere.

Alarmed by poor handwashing practices on one of their wards, hospital administrators tried multiple tactics to boost compliance: They held meetings. They hung signs. They even stuck cameras by every sink and hand sanitizer in the unit, hoping that “big brother” would prompt reforms.

None of it worked. Staff compliance hovered stubbornly at 10%.

Then the hospital changed tactics. An electronic board was placed in the hallway of the unit that gave employees instant feedback. Every time staff washed their hands, the board flashed a positive message. It also displayed each shift’s hand-hygiene score, which created a fun but competitive element among workers. Within four weeks, compliance rates climbed to almost 90% — a result that was replicated in another unit of the hospital.

Benefits of positive feedback

Giving positive feedback can boost the way others feel about themselves and their work, leading to stronger relationships and higher levels of trust. But it can also improve team performance: In a study examining the effectiveness of business teams, the best-performing teams received nearly six positive statements for every negative statement, while unsuccessful teams received just one positive statements for each negative statement. Staying mindful of the positive-to-negative feedback ratio can make a difference in how people work.

It can also become a catalyst for growth and development. When we receive positive feedback, we are more likely to feel motivated to continue to learn and improve. When feedback is framed with a helpful message, it often encourages others to take action and develop a stronger sense of agency.

And let’s not forget the virtuous cycle it creates. Getting positive feedback activates the brain’s reward center, leading to increased motivation and effort. That drive to thrive results in better outcomes, which brings more positive feedback. And so it goes — positive in, positive out.

The best feedback helps others understand their strengths and provides the encouragement and guidance to build on those strengths. Staying mindful about our positive-to-negative feedback ratio can bring the results we need and drive the relationships we want.

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