Research highlights the value of positive feedback

Just how valuable is positive feedback? Well, how would you feel if you could hear your own eulogy while you were still alive? That might sound like a really strange question to ask – but it’s one of the questions raised in this article by Dan Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

The reason he’s asking it is to illustrate one of the main points from the research that he’s been carrying out alongside a team from Harvard Business School. The core questions: How you can activate the very best version of you? And what happens when you do?

And the reason he’s talking about eulogies is to make the point that they’re always given by the people who matter to you. Those people would usually talk about the very best version of you. If you heard what they had to say, the chances are you might feel proud as you realise the impact you’ve made on them as well as profound gratitude that they’ve taken the time to say it.

Yet how good are we at saying this kind of stuff while people are still around to hear it? We’re getting better at it perhaps – but we’re still not great.

But as Cable et al’s research is emphasising, saying these kinds of things creates a positive spiral. It activates an individual’s best ‘self-concept’. In other words, it gets them reflecting on what they’re capable of when they’re at their best. They think about who they are and what they’re doing when someone else identifies those specific instances. The individual realises the positive impact they can have on others.

Remember we’re talking about highlighting actual instances of behaviour. That’s really important because it means that the memories evoked are vivid and personal. They create powerful emotional responses. And that puts in motion a shift in self-knowledge which can lead to longer term changes. Not only in terms of performance in the workplace either; this research examines and contributes to the growing body of evidence which reveals this kind of self-activation can improve people’s emotions, physiology, cognitive functioning and relationships. They become more resilient to stress and more resistant to disease and burnout. Creative problem-solving improves. Stronger long-term relationships form with their employers.

Transforming the nature of performance management to focus on positive feedback

For a long time, performance management systems haven’t concentrated on what employees do when they’re at their best. The emphasis has usually been more negative: what are your weaknesses? What are your development needs? The exact words may vary but all too often it’s been about the need to do better.

But this article reflects the fact that people naturally improve when feedback is focusing on their strengths rather than their limitations – positive feedback, not negative. Note that the positive changes were greater when they were ‘socially reflected’ – in other words, highlighted by someone else.

Organisations need to find ways to tell their employees when they’re at their best and highlight the instances when they’re making their best impact. It has the potential to increase engagement and performance, encouraging employees to be authentic to themselves while consistently reaching their true potential. Because businesses waste potential when they don’t talk about the positive impact people make. We need to use positive conversations to inspire instead.