Feedback and Gratitude
Updated: Feb 6
Somewhere along the line, in western culture, and specifically in western corporate and academic circles, the term feedback has become twisted to connote something negative. As a society, as people, and as leaders, we have adopted this attitude that assumes, "If you don't hear from me, assume you are doing fine. I will talk to you only when I have a problem."
Personally, I think this attitude sucks. Understanding feedback as being inherently negative or being solely in service of fixing what people do wrong kills creativity and motivation. What's more, it fosters resentment, uncertainty, and poor mental health in the people we work with.
We all need to practice giving praise. We need to stop taking the people around us for granted.
What we need is to adopt a model of gratitude-informed feedback.
Let's back up and talk about the purpose of feedback itself. Giving and soliciting feedback is the process of figuring out what's working, what isn't, and how we can do better tomorrow. Often, we have formal processes like comment cards, surveys, monthly check-ins, debrief reports and meetings, or similar modes of grading and assessment.
For anyone acting in a position of leadership, mentorship, or authority, whether official or informal, one of your goals should always be to support the growth of the people you work with. This might mean trying to encourage them to become more effective, efficient, or skilled in a particular field. It might also involve finding strategies that are best for the interpersonal dynamic of your team. You may (and should) also solicit feedback from those whose opinion you trust or value to help yourself understand how you can build your personal skills and understanding.
Most commonly, we teach people to use the sandwich method when giving feedback. In this style, you frame the area for growth around two things the person did well. This method has its uses, specifically when dealing with small in the moment notes, when working with people you don't know well, or when the situation requires immediate and minor adjustment.
For example, I used to teach kids to swim. The sandwich method worked great for that process because I could tell kids, "Hey! Your backstroke looks great! Look how far you swam! Just remember, you've got to lift those hips alllllll the way up, up, up towards the ceiling. But your pointy kicking toes were awesome!"
I'll also use the sandwich method when working with volunteers I don't know and will likely never see again. For example, "Hey! I noticed earlier that y'all did so well directing that crowd. That was the most efficient session transition I've ever seen! I did notice, though, that the trash cans are in the wrong place. Would it be possible to move them to the other side of the building? Thank you so much! Oh! And all those posters you've hung look fantastic! Y'all are the best!"
In any other context, I viscerally loathe the sandwich method.
Specifically, I'm not too fond of it because it teaches the people you work with to discredit your praise because it only comes to soften the backhand of your criticism. I also hate it because it does not allow for a meaningful and comprehensive examination of an individual context and its specific next best steps. It also assumes complete individual responsibility for often complicated situations, such as the glass cliffs, double burdens, and other ways we can be set to fail from the outset.
This is why I try to use a Gratitude Model of Feedback. I challenge traditional models of feedback to explore how a framework of gratitude can improve our relationships, foster a positive work environment, and develop motivation and belonging in those we work with.
The Gratitude Model makes three key assumptions in its execution:
First, we have to assume that everybody is always doing their best at that moment. It doesn't mean they are always doing their personal best or that their best is objectively good. All we are believing is that what we are seeing is the best a person can do at that time.
The show The Good Place offers as an excellent example of this premise. We live vivid lives outside of our work, hobby, and volunteer engagements. We all have competing priorities. We are all working in a system that can oftentimes seem rigged against us being able to do good things, no matter how hard we try. That makes it inevitable that we have all had days where we have been the shitty teammate. Maybe it was the group project that had a crisis or a deadline while you were out of town. Maybe it was the day you got really sick or the day after a bad breakup. If we enter the conversation from that small point of empathy and give people the benefit of the doubt that they are giving us their best, then we start with understanding and not resentment. We start from, "Thank you for making it this far, let's talk about how we can go further," rather than from a point of disappointment and confrontation.
Secondly, we need to be working with people who care about their work and want to improve. There is no point in wasting your breath giving feedback to someone who has already checked out. If someone has decided in their mind that they are going to do the bare minimum and nothing more, you can still give them the benefit of the doubt, give them praise and feedback, but if that person has decided not to put in the effort, it won't stick, and you can't blame yourself for that.
Thirdly, you need to be consistent in facilitating systems for reciprocal praise and feedback.
So how do we do that?
The first part of the Gratitude Model of Feedback is praise.
Praise is very different than a compliment. A compliment typically refers to a nice comment. It generally uses vague language and may refer to physical attributes or simple ideas. These are statements like, "I love your shoes!" or "Good work!"
Praise, on the other hand, is a specific acknowledgement for an action that has been deeply appreciated. It's a meaningful comment meant to reinforce positive behaviours and success.
Praise needs to be:
SPECIFIC: It recalls an event, action, or feeling.
HONEST: Does not sugarcoat or view events through rose-coloured glasses. People tend to know when they are being lied to or appeased about their performance. If they were booed off the stage, telling them that everyone loved it would be dishonest and unappreciated. It is also counterintuitive to the goal of reinforcing positive behaviour.
GENUINE: Reference impacts using “I” statements. You are not the arbiter of universal good and bad. But you do know what things help, impress, or impact you. Focusing on those things lends credibility and specificity to your praise.
A compliment says: "Great work!"
Praise says: "Hey, I saw that you called three different branches to help that customer find what they were looking for. You could have easily just told them we don't have any in stock and left it there, but you went the extra mile, and I am so proud of you. Not only did you help that person find what they needed, but you showed exemplary customer service and made our brand look really good. That is exactly what I want to see everyone on staff doing. Great job."
Praise should be given frequently and often independently of feedback for growth. Studies have shown that morale, motivation, creativity, and self-esteem tend to be highest at a seven-to-one ratio for praise and criticism. A.K.A, over time, for every one time you point out something that went wrong, you should point out seven things that have gone right. These things could be big things ("Thanks for driving me to the airport! It really helped me not have to stress about making my flight, and I liked getting to spend a little extra time with you before I go!") or small things ("Thanks for filling the coffee maker this morning! It never tastes as good when I make it!"), so long as you are consistently reinforcing positive behaviour. (Caveat: This stat is meant to be spread out, not all at once. So, for example, over the course of a week, you may point out a good thing every day and identify one problem on Tuesday.)
On the other side, we want to use the Growth Model of feedback to support learning and growth, whether helping our teammates develop skills or finding the right team dynamics. The goal here is to encourage team members to strive for their personal best; however, we cannot expect growth to result in perfection.
Too often, we give people feedback like, "You need to be more punctual!" and expect that simply by identifying and pointing out the issue, the other person will be able to miraculously improve overnight so we will never have to address the problem again. We tend to place the sole onus on the person receiving the feedback to solve the issue alone, without support, and without time to develop better habits and strategies. Instead, I think we should be using feedback as an opportunity to work with people to identify what the problem is, examine the context that has allowed the problem to arise, and see how you, as the leader, can support them in solving it.
This process should be reciprocal, and we should not presume to place blame or to know the solution before the conversation has taken place. Sometimes a problem with punctuality is just an issue of time management. Sometimes, it's a person being placed in an impossible situation that could be alleviated by a simple adjustment, say, having to drop a kid off 30-minutes across town at 8:45AM and then trying to make a 9:00AM meeting - something easily solved by pushing the meeting to 9:30AM. And sometimes, it's indicative of a larger problem, perhaps a mutual miscommunication, that needs to be solved. The key is, you won't know until you ask.
When we give growth-minded feedback, we are making a specific acknowledgement for a situation that has previously caused or has the potential to cause harm. We understand feedback as a tool to work forward to new and better systems, not as a way to ascribe blame for past actions. The desired outcome is to facilitate a meaningful conversation meant to identify solutions and offer support.
SPECIFIC: Recalls an event, action, or feeling.
HONEST: Does not seek to assign shame or blame. Hyperbolizing isn't helpful in these situations. Neither is the game of "What if?" - sometimes hindsight gives you clarity on the situation, sometimes it just tortures you with variables you can't know the outcomes too. Focus on what actually happened and how you will move forward.
GENUINE: References impacts using “I” statements.
UNDERSTANDING: Seek to identify the root causes of ongoing challenges. We need to understand that contradictions of feedback do not automatically equate to excuses or a refusal to accept responsibility. All situations are grounded in nuance and context that must be understood to address the larger issue. It may be the case that the issue that needs to be addressed is not the one you originally thought.
PROBLEM-SOLVING: Solution-oriented - refrain from anger and rely on natural consequences rather than arbitrary punishments. The goal of the conversation should be to find ways to prevent the issue from happening again.
SUPPORTIVE: Seeks to understand how you can support your teammates in their growth. People need support to grow and change. That might look like more training, changing strategies, or adjusting the interpersonal dynamic. You need to go into the situation willing to provide support to foster the change you want to see, rather than expecting the person to suddenly become perfect on their own.
The best way I know to deliver Gratitude informed, growth-minded feedback is through scheduled conversations. Depending on your team's needs, you may choose to consistently schedule recurring meetings, perhaps weekly or monthly, to talk about issues, or you may schedule meetings on an as-needed basis. Either way, I find that having advanced notice gives both parties time to reflect and prepare for the conversation, thus making the most effective use of your time and circumventing any anxiety that might arise from being blindsided.
As people and as leaders, the goal of feedback is to identify what's going right, what's going wrong, and how we can improve and find systems and strategies that work better for us. Consistent open and honest communication that reinforces positive behaviour and identifies areas for growth is the key, not only because people become more motivated and engaged, or because mental health and self-esteem improve, but because it is the kind, caring, and grateful thing to do.
Thank you for reading. It brings me hope to think that together we can make the world a kinder and more understanding and grateful place.