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Optimizing Positive Feedback

Optimizing Positive Feedback
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This article was originally published on Coach U Insights on December 19, 2023.

In this article, I'll first discuss why positive feedback is so important. Then I'll give the surprising reason why many leaders have a harder time giving positive feedback than negative feedback. And finally, I'll give a simple formula to make your positive feedback more impactful.

Why Positive Feedback Is Important

Why is positive feedback so important? The Gottman Institute conducted research showing that the "magic" relationship ratio of positive to negative interactions was 5:1 for healthy personal relationships. When this research was extended to business relationships, the same results were found. Highest-performing teams had a ratio of between 5:1 and 6:1. Medium-performing teams averaged around 2:1 positive to negative interactions, while low-performing teams were at 1:3, meaning there were more negative interactions than positive ones.

It comes as no surprise that positive interactions create greater psychological safety, build trust and increase engagement and productivity. When people feel safe, they are more responsive and less reactive and can make much better decisions. When people feel scared and unsafe in the workplace they may work harder, but not better. Providing positive feedback is one vital factor for optimizing people being in their Windows of Tolerance, or their level of stimulation at which they can perform their best.

Why Many Leaders Avoid Positive Feedback

Most leaders could give a talk on why giving positive feedback is important. Yet many, in practice, avoid doing so. Why? It seems counterintuitive. Isn't it easier to give positive feedback than negative feedback? Not necessarily.

In my leadership training, I'll have leaders in small groups exploring why it might be difficult to give positive feedback. I use examples to make it feel more visceral. Imagine you meet someone and extend your arm for a handshake, but they don't respond. Your arm dangles awkwardly in the air. You're not sure what to do. It feels vulnerable and uncomfortable. Now imagine another situation where you prepare a gift for someone and extend it to them. They either don't take it or they slough it off as if it doesn't really matter to them. Again, you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.

How does this relate to positive feedback? When you provide positive feedback, it's like giving that person a gift. But what if they don't accept it, or they make light of it (e.g., "Oh, it was nothing." or "I'm just doing my job.")? When they do so, what are they communicating to you? It could be that they don't respect you enough to take your positive feedback seriously or that you don't really matter to them. When you provide positive feedback, you're putting yourself out there, not just your words, but your being.

I think this is a largely unrecognized but powerful reason why leaders avoid positive feedback. Deep down, they're scared that they don't really matter enough for the other to graciously receive their feedback. And that would feel very awkward, uncomfortable and vulnerable. Check and see whether this is true of you.

How To Give Positive Feedback

OK, let's say that you're clear about the value of positive feedback, and you're willing to be vulnerable enough to offer it. How to best do that? I often suggest a simple formula to my clients: context, behavior and impact.

Let's take a common scenario. In one situation a leader says something like, "Hey, great job on that report!" In another situation, the leader says, "When I read that report [context], I could see how much care you put into explaining your points logically and clearly [behavior]. I was able to really understand what you were communicating so much that it changed my perspective on the situation [impact]."

Or the difference between, "You did a great job in that meeting today" and "When you presented today [context], you came across as relaxed, poised and very prepared. You'd really done your homework and were able to respond to even challenging questions clearly and confidently [behavior]. The result was that people really got your message and are engaged in following your lead on the next steps for this project [impact]."

You can see, I hope, all the ways that the context/behavior/impact approach adds depth and meaning to the feedback and helps the receiver really internalize what they did well.

Action Steps

Look for opportunities to provide positive feedback using this CBI (context, behavior, impact) approach. See how it feels, and notice how it's received. Then work to incorporate it into your standard leadership style.


ICF Master Certified Coach

Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC,, is an executive coach and organizational consultant with extensive training and over 30 years' experience in understanding the functioning of both organizations and the people within them. His focus is on leadership development, executive coaching and team/organizational effectiveness.

A licensed Psychologist, he is an Official Member of the Forbes Coaches Council and the ICF has designated him a Master Certified Coach, their highest credential. His work incorporates the Enneagram, Mindfulness, Practical Neuroscience, Adult Development, Polarities, Complexity and other capacity-building approaches.

His clients have included Exxon-Mobil, General Electric, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Bank of NY Mellon, IBM, ADP, Broadridge, Ferrellgas, Grainger, PeopleSoft, StorageTek, Wide Open West, Ledcor, HSBC, PCL, Government of Alberta, Royal Bank, Dialog, Sanofi-Aventis, Edmonton Police Service, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, University of Calgary, Rehrig Pacific, New Belgium Brewing, Hagemeyer, HYL Architects, and Los Alamos National Labs.

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Please feel free to contact us regarding organizational coaching, organizational research or global resources development

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