Positive Feedback: 4 Simple Steps to Meaningful Reinforcement

Have you ever been told “good job!” after you’ve finished a task or assignment? I hope you have. I’m sure you have. You probably felt good about the comment for the moment, but did you really know what you did well? Giving positive feedback or affirmation to others in the workplace (and in our personal lives) is important, but not many of us do it well.

Author’s Note: For the purposes of this article, I will use the terms positive feedback and affirmation interchangeably to mean “feedback intended to encourage an observed behavior.”

Why is it important to affirm effective behavior?

Most of us have a very vocal internal critic. We see ourselves through the lens of our own insecurities. It’s often said that we “compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides.” Getting feedback about what we’ve done well helps us gain a more balanced view of our skills, behaviors, and performance. Most important, though, is that when we know we’ve had a positive impact, and we know what we’ve done to get that result, we can choose to continue the behavior.

When should I give someone positive feedback?

Always provide feedback in private first. If you want to give public recognition of someone’s effort or impact, ask them first if they are comfortable with your doing so. In a work environment, I also recommend following up with the individual’s manager when feedback is positive.

Alright, fine. I’ll do it. How does this work?

I use a four-step format for feedback. For positive feedback, the steps are Behavior / Impact / Tomorrow / Expand (BITE). This format allows you to give clear, specific, and actionable feedback to reinforce effective behaviors.

  1. Behavior:
    Begin by specifically identifying the person’s words, actions, or behavior that had a positive impact.

    “Your preparation for the meeting today was very thorough, particularly your research on brand awareness.”

  2. Impact:
    Next, describe the impact the person’s choice(s) had.

    “Your quick answers made a strong, positive impression with our client.”

  3. Tomorrow:
    Explicitly state that they should continue this behavior “tomorrow” or in the future.

    “Next time we meet with the client, I’d like for you to duplicate that level of research and analysis.”

  4. Expand:
    If you are the individual’s coach, mentor, or manager, I suggest giving them a stretch goal in this step of the process. Be careful, though, not to create more work for the person every time they do something well. That is called punishment, and most people learn to avoid it.

    “You should share your research process during the intern training program.”

Common Pitfalls

Vague praise is not particularly helpful or actionable; hyperbole tends to embarrass the person we seek to affirm. In fact, research, research, and more research suggests that praise of someone’s identity (“You are so smart!”), rather than of their effort or behavior can actually do more harm than good.

Practice This Skill

Practicing the BITE format with a live human will help you develop this essential leadership skill. Positive feedback is almost always well received — especially if you time it right (see above) — so use this opportunity to develop yourself and delight others!

Set a daily or weekly numeric target for providing positive, BITE-style feedback. Record your successes (and missteps) and observations along the way. Once you’ve mastered this skill, move on to giving constructive feedback. Think of it as “leveling up.”



%d bloggers like this: