The Art of Continuous Improvement: On Giving and Receiving Positive Feedback

By Sococo Bob 

Continuous improvement requires Agile teams to not only identify and resolve problems, but also discern practices that are working well. It’s not enough to know what you want to change; you need to know what your strengths are so you can build on them.

Unfortunately, discovering and celebrating your strengths isn’t as simple as it sounds. As a culture, we are conditioned to focus on problem-solving and tend to overlook praise in the process. For distributed teams in particular, it’s all too easy to miss opportunities to celebrate your remote workers’ wins and instead only reach out when you spot a problem. That’s how we’ve gotten in the habit of saying, “No news is good news!” False. No news is just that. It’s no news. And a whole lot of nada isn’t helpful to your team.

The Problem With Problem Solving

Providing your team with feedback, in theory, is good for business. It fosters decision-making and behaviors that drive better performance. And isn’t that continuous improvement in a nutshell?

The problem with focusing solely on problem-solving is that people don’t view feedback, particularly the negative kind, in a very forgiving light. In fact, it’s quite literally the opposite. Biologically, we view criticism as a threat to our survival and, to compound the problem, we remember criticism vividly but incorrectly. It’s called the negativity bias.

Not only do people not like to hear bad news, it’s unproductive! When people receive critiques, they only apply it about 30% of the time. A success rate that low can really gum up the works in an Agile environment.

So, let’s recap: you’ve got a team of people who need to hear your feedback in order to boost performance, but they are more likely to remember the bad stuff, see it as a personal threat, and not use the feedback to do better anyway. Oof.

How to Give More Positive Feedback

When pure problem-solving doesn’t work, it’s time to make room for praise. Here are three tips to help you give positive feedback to keep distributed teams motivated, engaged, and happy in their pursuit of continuous improvement.

1. Be Specific

It’s a common complaint: team members often get feedback they can’t actually use, either because it comes too late or because it is too general. Remember the intent of positive feedback: it’s not just about making someone feel better, it’s about helping them build upon what they are doing so they can perform better. With that in mind, you can see how a compliment like, “Great job today!” is pretty useless (even though may make your co-worker feel warm and fuzzy inside).

Focus on outcomes to frame your positive feedback in a more specific and helpful way. Try, “You did a great job with your client pitch today! The slides you presented were concise but informative, and the design was really punchy. You should use it as a template for your presentations going forward. I think we’ll sign more contracts if prospectives have access to slides with this design and delivery in the future.”

2. Go Public

There is a time and a place for certain kinds of feedback. Negative feedback should always be provided in private, in a one-on-one setting. But positive feedback? Shout it from the rooftops! At the top of stand-up is a great time to celebrate someone’s big (or small!) win from the day before.

Public praise is awesome for several reasons: first, it amplifies the feel-good vibes for the receiver to hear it in front of others. Second, it lets the whole team know what strategies are working. And third, it motivates the rest of the team to boost their performance so they can hear compliments, too!

3. Use “And, What If” Statements

You’ve probably been told before to give your team members “compliment sandwiches.” Sorry, folks, the feel-good sammies are out—they actually undermine your feedback. Instead, try this strategy, taken from Pixar. It’s called “plussing.”

While “plussing” is meant as a way to make negative feedback feel less judgmental, it’s also an awesome way to turn any feedback situation into a positive and collaborative experience. Rather than using qualifying words like “but,” build on a compliment with an “and, what if” question to guide your feedback in a fruitful direction. For example, instead of, “I like the latest Sococo update, but there aren’t enough sound effects,” try saying, “I like the latest Sococo update, and what if the doors made an actual closing sound when you shut them?”

Get Ready to Receive!

Our culture prizes humility. This ideal can be a real problem with positive feedback, because when someone tells us, “You really knocked it out of the park today,” we tend to have an “Aw, shucks, no I didn’t…” attitude about it. But if you don’t believe a compliment to be true, you probably won’t use it to improve your processes in the future.

Being prepared to receive positive feedback is just as important as making an effort to give it to others. And because what goes around comes around, you’ll probably find yourself getting lots of positive feedback in the future! Open yourself up to it, use it, and continue to return the favor. Break the cycle of negativity by contributing to one of positivity. If you do, you’ll have a happier, more motivated team in no time.