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Why positive feedback won’t always hit the mark

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Nowadays I see a large number of blog posts, books and articles on the importance of promoting a culture of feedback and recognition within organizations. I can only support this. External recognition is as necessary for any woman or man as the sun is for a tree to grow (cf. the confidence metaphor).

But interestingly many leaders in coaching get back to me saying: « Antoine, I try to do it, but it doesn’t seem to work the way I imagined. It seems as if my positive feedback didn’t affect her». I’m sure you’ve also had the same experience!

I’ve practiced feedback and recognition for many years, firstly as a manager, then as a coach and consultant, and as much as possible as a father and husband. And like my clients, I’ve sometimes seen cases where the impact was beautiful, and other times where positive feedback seemed to have less effect than a small stone dropped in a lake.

Curious about this subject, I’ve tried to figure out why positive feedback was impactful in some circumstances, and why it wasn’t in others. This has led to an interesting formula, which I would like to share in this post welcoming your comments and contributions.

The recognition formula

Power = authenticity x significance  x self-esteem

Let me explain each parameter.

Power

The degree to which recognition has a deep and positive emotional impact on the person who receives it. The image could be once again the stone dropped in the lake.

Authenticity

Have you ever been confronted by a situation where the provider gives positive feedback eg. « I really appreciate what you did” but deep inside you feel that something sounds wrong? I’m sure you have. Our body is wired to feel what our head can’t analyze. Therefore if you don’t truly mean it, don’t say it! 

Significance 

The higher the significance of recognition for the receiver, the higher the power. I suggest that significance in this formula can be looked at in 3 different dimensions:

Of the ‘provider’ for the ‘receiver’

The more important the ‘provider’ is in the eyes of the ‘receiver’, the higher the power of positive recognition. Importance can be considered in terms of emotional connection, expertise, status …

Of ‘being’ versus ‘doing’

– “Well done Sarah, great presentation!” (doing)

– “Sarah, once again I am truly amazed by your ability to simplify a terribly complex topic” (being)

See the difference?

A ‘being’ recognition is dramatically more powerful than a ‘doing’ one. Why?

Because it touches us in our deepest sense of self. Suddenly an external light shines on an intrinsic quality that we have, one that cannot be taken away. Wow!

Of personal values

Suppose I have a strong personal value of authenticity and you recognize my capacity to always speak the truth. There is a chance that your recognition will hit the mark! Power will be at its highest when the ‘subject’ of recognition resonates with a deep value for the receiver.

why positive feedback
Self-esteem

Here again it can be looked at from the point of view of the provider and the receiver. As a general rule, the higher the self-esteem from provider and receiver, the more powerful the recognition will be.

Receiver

I’m sure you have had the same experience: you’ve just given a fully authentic ‘being’ feedback to one of your colleagues, but strangely enough the water stays almost unmoved… Why is that?

Because the higher the self esteem of the receiver, the higher his/her ability to welcome feedback. In other words, although your feedback may be extremely positive, deep inside I don’t ‘buy into it’ because I know that you’re wrong. Only I can truly see who I am…

Provider

Have you noticed that for some people providing positive feedback is natural and easy, whereas it isn’t at all for some others. I believe this also has something to do with self-esteem, but this time from the provider. If deep inside I see myself as a competent and important person, then I have no problem appreciating the qualities I see in others…Otherwise my prefered feedback style will be rather negative, in such a way that it preserves my poor self-esteem.

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