I need to give my employee more positive feedback

A reader writes:

My employee recently told me that she would like to get more positive feedback from me. I’m good at giving constructive feedback on how to improve her work, but I will admit that I don’t often remember to give positive feedback. This has been difficult my employee, who said that she has also noticed that I am more likely to give positive feedback to colleagues on other teams than to her.

After our conversation, I reflected on what she told me and realized that she’s completely right. I think I’m more likely to praise employees from other teams because I have no set expectations for their performance, whereas I have high expectations for my own employee and when she meets them I see it as a part of her job. Clearly that’s not a very people-friendly way of working – I can understand how she feels. I feel awful for being a bad boss and want to know how to get better.

I’ve taken training and read material on how to give effective positive feedback, I just don’t think to do it very often. Are there tips and tricks I can use to remember to give positive feedback more regularly? I thought about scheduling something, but this seems like it might come off as inauthentic.

Think about positive feedback this way: The totality of what you say to your employee should reflect the totality of your assessment of her work. If you think she’s doing great work overall, then what you say to her about her work needs to reflect that. If she’s doing 95% great, but the stuff she could improve on accounts for 80% of the feedback you give, the message you’re relaying doesn’t line up with your actual assessment.

Think of it in terms of writing a performance review: If you spend 80% of the review talking about weaknesses in her work, she would rightly come away thinking you weren’t very happy with her performance. It also works that way day-to-day — if 80% of your feedback in a given month is corrective, you’re sending a message that doesn’t line up with your real view of her work.

Your percentages don’t have to line up exactly, but you do need to look at the broad trends. If I had to put numbers on it to give you a rough idea, I’d say that if an employee is doing well, they should be hearing about what’s going well at least twice as often as they’re hearing corrections (and that’s a minimum; it would ideally be more).

That doesn’t mean you need to have lengthy sit-downs about every good thing they do. But it does mean you should make a habit of regular comments like “great job on that memo — you captured exactly what I was trying to say” and “great point in that meeting” and “I love seeing how well X is going” and so forth. If you’re thinking something positive, make a point of relaying it.

Plus, when you regularly talk to people about what’s going well, it makes it easier to address it when something isn’t going well. When they have a clear understanding that in general you’re happy with their work, people tend to be less defensive and more open to talking about what they could be doing better. If you don’t have that foundation already in place when you need to give more critical feedback, people are much more likely to come away feeling like you’re not taking into account everything they’re doing right.

As for how to remember to do it, hopefully you have regular one-on-ones. A regular part of those should be debriefing projects and talking about how things are going. As part of your prep for those meetings, take a few minutes to jot down notes about what has gone well recently and what you’ve been happy with (as well as things you have questions about, want to check in on, or want to provide guidance on). You can also keep an ongoing document with thoughts about your employee’s work; here’s an example of what that could look like.

But if scheduling it specially is what it takes, go ahead and schedule it. There’s nothing wrong with having a reminder on your calendar to give an employee feedback on her work! It’s as essential a piece of your job as anything else you’d use reminders for.

{ 183 comments… read them below }

  1. aepyornis*

    You sound like a very considerate boss, OP :). Just… be mindful to not overcorrect to the point of giving praise to too many small-ish as a brutal change of course might accidentally end up sounding condescending. Let your employee know that you think they were right, so that they understand the change.

    1. Legal Beagle*

      I agree, and I think it would also be really encouraging and meaningful to the employee to know that their feedback was heard and internalized, and LW is committed to working on it.

    2. Ohlaurdy*

      I agree! And I think OP’s employee knows it. It would be SO scary to tell your boss that you need more positive feedback and you’ve noticed a disparity, so she must either be very confident in her work, trust OP, or both. I think you should acknowledge the effort to make a change and maybe as your first round of praise, commend her for effectively advocating for herself!

      1. sacados*

        Ooh, this is a really good point! It says a lot that the employee felt secure enough to go to their boss with this ask — clearly understanding that OP is someone who will take it in the spirit it’s meant and not have a bad reaction.

      2. aepyornis*

        Agreed! It really sounds like a good employee-manager relationship, on its way to becoming a great one.

  2. Lena Clare*

    I love the % idea!
    It’s really great that your employee could come back to you with feedback and that you’ve taken it on board, OP. I’m sure you’ll be all good.

  3. yup*

    Also consider offering thanks at the same time as compliments – even if you’re thanking them for something that’s considered a regular part of their job. “Thanks for your great work leading that last meeting, you really clarified the topic so that everyone was on the same page. I appreciate the legwork you put into researching the topic in advance.”

    1. Colette*

      What I like about this is that, even if the meeting was part of their job, you’re specifying exactly what they did that maybe someone else wouldn’t have done.

      1. hayling*

        I attended a leadership training and they said when giving feedback you want to emphasize the impact of what they did so the praise feels more substantive.

    2. Smithy*

      I think another way of thinking about “positive feedback” is to think of it as a way to further refine or reiterate what your expectations are.

      In yup’s example, it may be a case of simply reiterating/confirming that their role in leading a meeting is to clarify the topic and ensure all participants are aligned. There are other meetings where moderating, hearing all voices and/or sticking to the agenda is critical. Whether it’s seen as praise or thanks, it’s also a way of confirming “when you are leading a meeting/submitting a report/blah blah blah – this is what I expect, and I’m happy to confirm that we remain aligned on expectations.”

      It may be that I’m in a field where more of our work is subjective, so the point of highlighting work that is done well or I appreciate I think is as important as giving constructive criticism.

      1. Smithy*

        One more thing! I had a boss for years where there was no positive feedback, lots of negative. I also work in field with some fairly concrete metrics from external audiences – so if my external contacts were happy and I was hitting markers – then I began telling myself I was doing a good job. Because that was the only source of praise (beyond looking to family/friends).

        While overall I wouldn’t say I was wrong in that assessment – but it was an assessment based on my opinions and external partners. My boss should have WANTED to be a larger voice in that assessment. So while one side of no positive feedback is staff feeling dejected and undervalued – another risk is staff finding value and positive feedback from other sources. This feedback may be entirely based on a small section of their work or somewhat out of step with your specific industry.

        1. anon for this*

          There is a classic article whose title is: “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B”. Smithy’s experience of finding praise from external audiences can lead to this situation. The company might want something different from the external clients, but human nature lends itself to trying to gain praise. Thus someone whose only positive feedback comes from sources external to the company will be more focused on what the external clients want rather than care about the company priorities.

          This is my situation internally to my broader organization. I am loaned to a client department. Initially my “home” department was worried that I would come to prioritize the client department’s goals. Gradually they let me go to the point of eliminating even a hot desk spot for me in my “home” department where my client department gave me an office. Neither of them are great about positive feedback, but if I do get it, it will be from the client department. Their priorities sometime clash and you can be durn tooting that my priorities match the client department, since they are the ones that care about me. The fact that my “home” department provides my salary only goes so far against the client department being the one that cared about my dad dying.

          This is more of a smack than the OP deserves, but people will gravitate to what gets them positive feedback, no matter if that is what you want them to be concentrating on at that time.

          1. Uranus Wars*

            Wait, what? They were worried you would prioritize another department…so they eliminated your space in the current department?! I’d love to have heard that logic.

            1. anon for this*

              Eventually the space was considered more important than my loyalty, which they lost. It was more about my Dad, but the office was a factor.

          2. Smithy*

            This all makes so much sense.

            Going back to the letter yesterday about managers not delegating – I think that often happens when people either remain rewarded for doing those tasks or perceive being rewarded for doing those tasks/remaining busy.

      2. Mystery Bookworm*

        Agreed. Positive feedback is a way of keeping things on the right course just as much as negative feedback is.

    3. Legal Beagle*

      It can be hard to spontaneously produce specific positive feedback, so saying regular tthank yous is an easy way to start. Even though she’s “just doing her job,” it’s nice to be thanked! You want to feel seen and appreciated for your hard work, not taken for granted. To push it further, think about ways in which your employee’s excellent work makes your life easier or helps you do your job better, and use that as an opportunity to give positive feedback. Something as simple as “Thanks for staying on top of that monthly report, I appreciate your diligence!” can make someone’s day if they aren’t feeling confident in their boss’s perception of their work.

      1. Sam.*

        My old boss would make a point to include positive feedback in most of our one-on-ones, but it was rarely a specific, out-of-the-ordinary thing that he wanted to comment on. He would just be very deliberate about saying something positive, even if it was a general comment when wrapping up our meeting (something like, “You’re doing really great work on this, as usual.”) It definitely did make a difference in making me feel more valued in an environment where I was doing work well above my paygrade without being properly compensated for it (obviously it didn’t make up for that and I did ultimately leave, but it definitely made me less bitter in the meantime.)

  4. Forrest*

    >. I have high expectations for my own employee and when she meets them I see it as a part of her job

    Have you ever made this explicit to your employee—the high expectations stuff? What are the things you just don’t have to think about because you know she’s got it all in hand and you have confidence in her judgment and ability? Tell her that!

    1. Sylvia*

      I think this is a good point. The employee may not even realize that she’s meeting OP’s high expectations. That’s praise within itself.

    2. Forrest*

      Oh, you can also ask your employee to ASK you for feedback on things she is pretty sure are going well. If you don’t feel natural scheduling positive feedback, you could incoporate a “tell me that you’re happy with X, Y, Z” section in your one to ones, where she says, “you haven’t given me any feedback on these couple of projects—does that mean your happy with all that?” That can be a natural opportunity for you to say, “oh yes, I saw the document to sent to Freda and that was great— and I meant to pass on some feedback from the art department about that—they said they were really happy with it!” Encourage her to prompt you with any areas that she feels she’s not getting feedback on and remember that if you haven’t commented it’s not probably because you’re pretty happy with what she’s doing.

      1. Me*

        I don’t love this. It’s turning it around and making it the employees problem. It is the manager’s job to give positive feedback and it shouldn’t be on the employee to make sure that’s happening.

        If you mean in general giving her explicit permission to ask if she feels she’s not getting it that’s one thing, but it can’t replace the boss doing their job properly.

        1. Forrest*

          I was thinking more of just making it clear that if OP hasn’t brought a project/piece of work up, it’s probably because they are assuming it’s fine and part of having confidence in their employee is not needing to actively think about it, and stressing that It’s always ok to say, “how am I doing on the X project? Are you happy with that?” But then OP’srole is not just to wave it off with, “oh fine, fine, I’m not worried about that”, but to actively acknowledge where good work is being done and what that means for the wider team and department.

      2. Stormy Weather*

        If I were the employee I would feel very uncomfortable doing this. It could come across as needing reassurance and lacking confidence in skills. I like Allison’s reply.

    3. SometimesALurker*

      Agreed! Also, another way to give positive feedback is to acknowledge moments when she’s doing her job although it’s harder than usual. For example, if most of the year she needs to review 100 widgets a week, but a couple of times a year there are crunch times when she has to do 120 widgets a week. In those crunch times, meeting her 120 widget target on time *is* just part of her job, but you can still say, “Thanks for these, I know it’s a busy week for you!”

      1. Malarkey01*

        Though everything we do is part of our jobs, some of those tasks or projects are harder than others. When someone completes a particularly complex thing it’s a great time to say “good job on that!”

    4. BRR*

      Really good catch. It reminds me of a previous employer who for performance evals said most employees should land in “exceeds expectations” (with some true rockstars in a higher tier) and basically made it seem bad to land in meets expectations. Someone pointed this out and was told that we should strive for excellence or some fluff.

      But it stinks to be held to a very high standard and the expectation is that the high standard is the norm. I’m sort of going through this now and I could be ok with it if you acknowledge it’s a high standard, let my performance go below that every now and then (to prevent burnout), and my raises reflect that I’m meeting this standard. When my only two options are “doing ok” or needs to do better” when in reality I’m meeting your high bar, that makes me want to find a different job.

      1. LGC*

        …but…if you’re supposed to exceed expectations, doesn’t that mean that you’re meeting the expectation of exceeding expectations?! I-

      2. JetlaggedExpat*

        I remember years ago trying to talk my bosses out of using ‘meets/exceeds expectations’ language on a customer satisfaction survey: ‘how can this be useful information when we haven’t asked what their expectations are?’

      3. Diana*

        I think the employee will eventually look for another job and it’s simply because OP hasn’t given enough positive feedback. It’s not hard to find some positive comments, starting with apologising for not giving that sort of feedback and the employee having the guts to bring it up. That’s a pretty confident thing to do and it doesn’t sound as though OP did this and instead walked off to self reflect and educate themselves on the topic. It’s not rocket science to say a few positive comments.

    5. Cobol*

      I was going to say something similar. I’m a lot like OP, and I think on addition to Alison’s recommendation, they should also acknowledge what the led their email with, so change your feedback, but also let your employee know that they have been doing a good job.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      My supervisor routinely thanks us for things that are, indeed, part of our jobs, but it’s nice to know that he notices that we do them without being reminded, that we remember to cover all the little details, and when we’ve tried to anticipate possible conflicts, other resources we might use instead, etc. Yes, we’re supposed to do all of this, but it’s good to know that he notices that we do them and doesn’t only notice when we mess up.

    7. MCMonkeyBean*

      Also, I don’t think the fact that you see it as part of your job has to prevent any positive comments. People can do their job well or poorly! So yes, it was her job to prepare that puppy report but how was the report? I think it sounds like some specific positive feedback on occasion is needed here, but I think also you could try just working something casual like “good job on this” into your vocabulary.

      Example scenario: she turns in the report, you go over it and decide it’s mostly good but you want her to make a small change in the snout column. She updates the column and sends you the new file. You respond “thanks, good job on this.”

  5. cmcinnyc*

    Oh man, THIS: “I have high expectations for my own employee and when she meets them I see it as a part of her job.”

    I have worked for so many people like this! You go above and beyond for them and that’s just what they expect. It’s brutal working for someone like this. These types of managers fall into two broad camps: manipulative assholes and genuinely wired to see excellence as a default. The OP sounds like type 2, and I have worked for really good people/good managers of this type, but it holds you back professionally! No matter how good a job I did for a type like this, my performance reviews are a straight Acceptable or Meets Expectations. Thanks for nothing!

    1. The Original Stellaaaaa*

      I agree. If this employee is doing better work than her equivalents in other departments but is being treated like a typical employee, what happens when the others get promotions and raises that she doesn’t get? Setting unrealistically high standards for baseline expectations is demoralizing after a while.

      1. Anne Elliot*

        I can speak to this from very recent personal experience, where I self-evaluated myself as “exceeding expectations” only to have my manager reduce my rating to “meets expectations” and the explanation was exactly this: That I do such good work so consistently that that is what he expects from me. It was the most demoralizing review I ever received, since I would not have rated myself “EE” unless I felt strongly that was what I deserved. I was surprised how upset I was by it, but honestly that emotional reaction probably also was because of * gestures vaguely at everything *.

        1. Nea*

          Wow. He rewarded your “such good work so consistently” that he actually downgraded and demoralized you? You have every right to be incredibly upset – he basically said to your face that he’s taking a superb work ethic for granted.

          OP, you’re doing the same. And if you take a high performer for granted because you “expect” high performance, don’t be surprised if the employee takes that high performance to someone who will actually appreciate it and tell them so.

        2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          What an EPIC failure to comprehend what performance reviews are for.

          You’re doing it at a BASE LINE, not a per-person. Not “I expect this from you, while I expect that from Theodore over there.” That’s how you get biases and you get inequality based on discriminatory protected classes. Y-U-C-K.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Hey, he’s the boss he should be able to explain to you how YOU can do better than YOU.

          “So what you are saying boss is that in order to exceed expectations I have to do better than what I am doing now, because you have grown to expect what I do now. So what specific steps do I do so I can be better than me?”

          I’d bring popcorn to watch this one.

        4. allathian*

          Ouch, how demoralizing. Did you start doing just the bare minimum for this boss to make their expectations more reasonable? Or did you quit?

        5. Lalala*

          This happened to me in every annual review with my previous manager. So demoralizing, and really eroded my trust in her. I was so surprised and upset after my first review with her that I was in tears. Hang in there!

        6. MCMonkeyBean*

          Ugggh that is so terrible.

          I really appreciate that a few years at my company they rolled out an initiative to make things clearer for year-end reviews and for internal transfers. They assigned all positions something like P1 and P2 so that it was clearer that this one IT role is at the same level as this other role in finance. And most importantly, they laid out a very clear chart of the expectations for each level. Like a P2 should be good at communication but a P3 should be great at communication, things like that. *Those* should be the expectations you meet or don’t meet, so they are the same for everyone. Punishing you for being great all the time is so crappy.

          I did learn though that unfortunately my company grades on a curve, I’m not sure if that’s common or not but I hated it. I had my best year ever and got a rave review, but was told that basically it was a lot of people’s best years ever and they could only give out so many 4s so I got another 3. I have since decided that I’m going to be a 3 no matter what I’m going to put more of my energy into my life outside of work. I do everything assigned to me and hopefully do it well, but I don’t really go above and beyond anymore.

        7. TardyTardis*

          Start looking for somewhere else. Other people will get promoted because they have other bosses, but never you. (and then when you leave, the boss will be shocked, shocked, I say and dismayed at the lower quality of replacement he or she will get). It could be an internal lateral move or a jump to another company, but start looking now.

      2. Spencer Hastings*

        Well, qualitative and quantitative feedback can be different. This employee might have the same problem as me: I get high marks on performance reviews and my manager says that everything is great when she checks in with me, but the positive feedback is never very specific. (On the flip side, the negative/corrective feedback is *always* specific: “fix this particular thing”, but hardly ever “here’s something you should try to improve in general…”.)

    2. A Simple Narwhal*

      People genuinely wired to see excellence as a default may mean well, but you are absolutely right that it’s incredibly hard to work in that environment. It’s like having parents that expect As and you have a panic attack about getting one B+ while you watch your friends get rewarded for making straight Bs. Sure, it looks great on a transcript but you’re a miserable husk.

      I used to work for someone well-known for having extremely high expectations, and while it felt cool and prestigious for a bit to be a member of their team, it eventually wore off and the stress wasn’t worth it. I felt constantly under pressure to perform in new unspoken ways and was just never good enough. I’m much happier working for someone with reasonable expectations who recognizes their employees as actual humans and not output machines.

      (I’m not saying OP is exactly like this – it is possible to have a healthy expectation of your employees and just not be forthcoming with praise, but just offering some perspective!)

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        “People genuinely wired to see excellence as a default may mean well, but you are absolutely right that it’s incredibly hard to work in that environment.”
        It’s like having parents that expect As
        This. It’s not worth it in the long run because I’m not your kid and the goal I’m working toward (advancing, raises, better tasks/responsibilities) are in your hands to give me. So what do I have to do?

    3. Admins, can't find good ones*

      Yeeeessss. I had a manager known for giving high performers 3/5 ratings. It was discouraging since I had middling teammates rated higher than me bc their managers were generous with praise. I will say that this manager saw the light when layoffs were looming over us. She changed my ratings, moving them each up a step, so that I wouldn’t be punished for having a tough boss.

      But before that, since I looked mediocre, I didn’t get promoted or raises like me peers did.

      1. allathian*

        This is awful. I’m glad your boss saw the light before all her reports were laid off, though.
        My job is problematic because it’s very hard to design fair numerical metrics. But for jobs where they are available in my org, there’s a rating system for bosses as well so that they know to set expectations fairly across the board.

    4. Mystery Bookworm*

      I this statement also misrepresents the point of feedback and appreciation. Appreciation and positive feedback doesn’t need (and shouldn’t be) to be reserved for when people go above and beyond.

      Positive feedback helps reinforce behavior just as much (probably more) than critical feedback.

      There are likely many things OP (and the rest of us) do that are really expected (like passing the salt, or holding the door for someone, or cooking a nice meal) but think how demoralizing and eroading it would be if we were never thanked or positively acknowledged for those behaviours. It’s the same with work. If you never communicate that you appreciate the good stuff, you risk inadvertantly sending the message that you don’t actually care that much about it.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        Upvote 9000.
        should I say “thanks” when someone gives me their part of our shared project?
        should I say “please” when I ask a coworker to do something that is his responsibility?
        should I say, “well done” when some one did something well even though they are supposed to?
        yes. yes, you should.

      2. Joielle*

        Yes! I think of how my husband and I make a point of noticing and thanking the other person for everyday things. Like, oh you made coffee, thanks. Or thanks for loading the dishwasher while I went for a run. Of course these are things that we both have to do to keep our household running – they’re not a massive or unusual effort. But it makes for a more pleasant relationship if you know someone notices your contributions and you don’t feel taken for granted.

        Generally I’d say marriage advice doesn’t translate well to the workplace, but in this case I think it does!

        1. No Name Yet*

          Yes, this! My wife and I do the same thing, even for the things that are each of our “responsibilities” that we do every day. And you know what? It really does make a positive difference to hear that. I don’t do it as often at work (I think that would legit feel weird for people), but I do thank people at work quite a lot – if them doing their job makes my life easier, or helps me with things that I couldn’t do – great! Thank you! I appreciate it!

      3. Smithy*

        This is key.

        A considerable part of my job includes meeting deadlines that includes contributions and work by a number of other colleagues. There are a number of deadlines I (and my peers) don’t meet/need extensions because of delays of others. But we try to implement systems to hit those deadlines as much as possible, and when we need more time – to only need one extension.

        On one side yes – a deadline is a deadline is a deadline – and it’d be great if that was just an expectation for our team. But it’s clearly hard, clearly represents larger institutional issues, and acknowledging good work and effort to just do our best is meaningful.

    5. ItsMe*

      I have a Type 2 boss right now – and not only can it hold YOU back professionally, it can hold anyone reporting to you back as well. When I submit performance reviews I’m continually asked if someone “really did that well” and urged to push them down the scale in the future.

      No, I’m not going to downgrade someone who is a fantastic employee simply for the sake of having “a critical evaluation.” I do have to seek approval from above for any promotions for them, and I’m concerned their solid reviews may actually hold them back (because my boss doesn’t trust them.) It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.

    6. Mighty Mouse*

      I worked for a guy like this. The only feedback I ever got was negative and often inaccurate. Like he would scold me for not calling our client, Mrs. Smith, back, but I had called her three days in a row in the half hour time frame she had allotted and never answered. She then wrote a nasty response on a survey so it was obviously my lack of communication. He just expected everyone to work on this insanely high level all the time and practically mind meld with him on what option was right. It was completely demoralizing.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        My company closed. Coworker and I took jobs in two different departments at a new company. My boss “do you think I like having to be a cheerleader all the time? No. Some days I don’t want to be the boss. But it’s my job to tell you if you are doing a good job, too.”
        Her boss would drop all kinds of crap you did “wrong” over the year in the annual review. Nothing positive. “My job isn’t to tell you what you did right.”
        Wow. She left before 20 months.
        I’m looking at 20 years.

          1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

            He was genuinely shocked when they let him go. So obtuse. Everyone else was “managing wrong.”

    7. LQ*

      I work for someone who is brutally type 2. Although the performance reviews from him have been fairly sparkling (like all exceeds across the board) because he does recognize that he’s got high expectations. He still doesn’t do any appreciation outside of that performance review but I think it’s a really good point to call out the performance review. Few people will know that an acceptable from James would be wildly exceeds from anyone else, an exceeds from him is unheard of. So it doesn’t matter how good someone is if that record sticks with them internally and you’ve just harmed an excellent report. OP you need to really look around and not under value and under identify in performance reviews and if you do, seriously consider going back and revising them. Please.

      Do the rest of the stuff too, but this is worth stopping and going backward in time to fix if you are a place that does any internal promotions, transfers, or bases raises on performance reviews.

    8. anon for this*

      My former grand boss had this attitude. He had been an Army Ranger, so he considered excellence a default. How I discovered this was from one of his direct report who was deeply demoralized and in tears that she wasn’t going to get an “exceeds expectations” rating, since taking on three jobs was just part of the normal expectation of excellence. She didn’t try to excel after that and left in a year.

      My own experience is that I got rated as “meets expectations” the year that I won an organization level award for service. It was an award only given to two people per year out of over 5,000 employees. When I met with my supervisor, she didn’t seem to notice that I was silent for the evaluation. Finally, I spoke up and asked her, “If not now, when?” She did eventually change the evaluation to exceeds, but by then I knew not to bother doing extra things under her supervision. And did not.

      In another evaluation with the same supervisor, I asked her why I should do more than the person at the lowest level of the “meets expectations”. She just sputtered and never had an answer. Didn’t miss her when she left.

    9. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Another way to describe it is old-fashioned being taken for granted. You could give my old boss the sun, the moon, and the stars and she’d bitch because she didn’t get the planets. (OK, here’s some Vivaldi.)

  6. High Score!*

    Up until I changed jobs recently, my perception was that if I was not (verbally) flogged then I had done well. I’m am engineer, so this was actually the case. The company I now work for is into constant improvement so everyone gets regular training from upper management down. And they all focus on the positive and problem solving rather than criticism. I still don’t know how to respond when someone compliments me. I wonder if this is good or bad? I’m guessing this is a positive thing bc they were doing very well before COVID and are already recovering. Everyone is very productive.

    1. tangerineRose*

      This sounds like a good thing. It’s not like they’re ignoring issues – they’re working on them but in a more positive way.

    2. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      It was very hard for me to accept a compliment. I’ve learned to say, “thanks” and move on. The speaker is comfortable and I have become very comfortable with it.
      Get used to it and you will learn to enjoy it.

    3. TardyTardis*

      I was always happy to have a job where the boss just left me alone, because I learned never to expect praise even when I was clearly one of the high performers.

  7. Anna*

    I love this question because I also work at a company where “no news is good news.” We tend to only get corrective feedback and I struggle with it, too. There is always a push for improvement, which is good in a way, but I also need to know if I’m doing something in exactly the way my supervisor wants, so that I don’t work on ways to ‘improve’ it and make it worse.

    The positive feedback can also help inform me in what my supervisor likes, so that I have a direction to move towards with the more corrective feedback. My department is still working on this, but getting better at it. (Continual improvement!)

    1. Zephy*

      At OldJob I served for a year on an “employee recognition committee” – in practice we were glorified party planners, but one of the initiatives that the committee devised was a system for praising/providing positive feedback to employees. It was added to the handbook and made an explicit part of managers’ jobs to find at least one person each month who was doing a good job and reward them for it. The reward was a $5 gift card, so the stakes really should not have been that high – we weren’t offering people raises or promotions, just five dollars’ worth of Dunkin Donuts or something. Implementation was challenging mostly because a lot of the managers were like OP. They thought that doing your job–even doing that job really well, even with quantifiable metrics for how well you were doing that job–was just what was expected of you, and were disinclined to reward people for “just” that. I was the only non-manager on the committee at the time and very junior, so I did try to make the case that it still boosts morale to be told that your boss sees you and thinks you’re doing well, but it wasn’t very effective.

      It also didn’t help that at that moment in time, upper management was giving all sorts of mixed messages about cross-training, telling employees “stay in your lane” but also “go above and beyond to help other departments when needed,” but not without being asked by your manager, thus making that “above and beyond” task now “part of your job” and therefore unworthy of praise. I did actually have a manager argue that his report filling in last-minute for another department when they were short-staffed wasn’t worth thanking her for, just because he had told her to do it. I was there that day and I saw her – she did a great job basically learning a whole new role in five minutes and serving a ton of frustrated customers, her metrics for her actual job that week were barely impacted, and that was somehow not worth a pat on the back and a free caramel frappuccino.

    2. K*

      Yes, this is exactly why positive feedback is just as important as corrections. We need to know what we’re doing right so we can keep on doing it!

  8. Cheese_Toast*

    One of my first managers was like this — I got regular negative feedback. After a year I concluded that I was not a good fit for the role and secured a lateral move to another department, into a role with a different set of responsibilities. When I gave him my notice he literally started sobbing — he said no one else could do my job as well as I do, that the project would collapse without me, that he would give me whatever raise I wanted. All of this was certainly new to me. I turned him down, and the project did indeed collapse after a few months.

    Now I wonder if he was like this OP, where he felt he didn’t need to praise my work because that’s what he was paying me for. I don’t miss working for him.

    1. Jennifer*

      I’ve had this happen before, but I was much younger and working at a call center. All I got was negative feedback. If I was a minute late – reprimand. Took too long on a call – reprimand. Then when I quit they begged me to stay. ???? Tell people you appreciate their work when they’re around or you’ll lose all your good people.

      1. TardyTardis*

        I had that happen when I left the library–suddenly they realized how wonderful I was! A bit late.

    2. A Simple Narwhal*

      I had a similar boss early in my career who never really said anything except to criticize. So when my annual review turned out to be positive, I was genuinely shocked. And then they criticized me for being surprised that the review was good. How was I supposed to know I wasn’t completely failing when they never said anything good about my work?

      This is the same boss who later wanted me to comfort them when they laid me off so yea, I don’t miss working for them either.

      1. CR*

        Ooh, I had a boss act all upset when she laid me off and came to me for a hug. I just stood there with my arms at my side like wtf?

        1. A Simple Narwhal*

          “Oh this must be sooo hard for you, you’ve lost an employee while all I’ve lost is my livelihood. Oh and you’re the one who took it away. So yea, you’re clearly the one in need of support. From me, specifically.”

          Read the room people.

        2. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          Hear hear. Managers who do this really irk me. (I’m remembering one who stood outside my office looking sad while I cleared my office. I wanted to tell her to get lost.)

          OK, so it’s tough letting someone go, but guess what. It’s tougher being let go. You’ll be back at your desk tomorrow with your morning coffee while I’m trawling Indeed and Simply Hired and signing up for unemployment. Your silly hug won’t help me a bit, so don’t expect ME to comfort YOU. At least have that much professionalism.

    3. Smithy*

      I once had a boss yell at me for 2 hours around assorted negative aspects of my performance. After hour 1, she announced I was getting a 20% raise – then went on with another hour of the yelling. It remains the most surreal professional experience of my life.

    4. CR*

      Something like this happened to me too. I did my job well and was recognized as a great employee by everyone but my manager, and all I got was negative feedback on minor issues. I decided it was time to move on. I left the job and they were shocked!

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m reading this post and this comment in utter horror! I’m so sorry this happens and that it happened to you.

      I’ve worked for some grumpy cantankerous geese over the years, always quick to correct and slower to praise. But holy heck, they always did praise me left and right, despite knowing that they were hard to “please” from previous conversations with them and other colleagues!

      I’m glad this person ended up with a collapsed project, bad management deserves this kind of consequence.

    6. cmcinnyc*

      I got the sobbing begging treatment once. It happened during a meeting in boss’s office with her methodically picking apart everything I always did wrong for half an hour. I finally said, “Look, you’re clearly firing me. Cut to the chase, say the words, I’ll clean out my desk.” And she fell apart, weeping that if I quit she didn’t know what she was going to do. So disconcerting!

    7. Not So NewReader*

      OP, sometimes we need to let things scare us into doing better. Let this story scare you somewhat.
      Let’s say you don’t remember to say positive things….your employee might not remember that she wants to work at your company.

      On a more realistic note, praise does not have to be marching bands and fireworks. Praise can look like this:

      Nice catch on that.
      I like how you handled this.
      That’s been a recurring problem for a while now, thanks for fixing it.
      I should have done that, I really appreciate you doing it instead, but I don’t expect you to do it all the time as it is my responsibility. Nice to know you have my back.
      I noticed you streamlined x. It’s so much easier to handle now.
      You handled that angry customer/cohort in a very admirable way.
      Thanks for anticipating I would need Y and having it ready.
      I am glad you work here.
      Thanks for all your hard work today.

      All these things are pretty low effort on your part. It’s not a big sit down conversation. It’s a comment in passing.
      As motivation, keep in mind that people need to be compliment 3-5 times before they hear even one compliment.

      I would thank my new-to-me crew each night as we were leaving. I thanked them on the first night and for two more nights, then on the morning of the fourth day, one of them said to me, “I just realized you thanked us last night.”
      Yep, and the night before and the night before that. But I had to do it for 3 nights before i was heard once. Sure, I let that go. I did not say anything to her comment but I smiled and nodded. They had to go through their own process. I did keep thanking them each night.

      Productivity levels doubled. I don’t think it’s solely because I thanked them. I think it’s a number of factors. I do think that 1 ounce of praise works better than 10 pounds of correction. The rate of return on that 1 ounce of praise is much higher than you might imagine.

  9. Anononon*

    My dad has often said that the one single thing that managers/bosses can do to improve morale is tell people they’re doing a good job more often (assuming it’s true, of course). I think most (or at least many) managers are like OP where if an employee is doing their job well, there’s no need to say anything because that’s what the employee should be doing. However, all of us can probably remember specific times when we’ve gotten a “good job” or similar from a manager, and how good that made us feel.

  10. Sylvia*

    I don’t think you’re a bad boss, OP. You clearly listen to your employees, and you’re open to the criticism and feedback. That’s a million times better than most bosses we hear about on here.

    1. nonprofit nancy*

      I’m impressed with both OP and her employee for giving us an example of feedback both thoughtfully offered and received.

    2. Mama Bear*

      Agreed. A manager who can take their own constructive feedback and really want to improve is huge.
      I’d think about the kind of feedback you give to the other people that your employee notices and look for opportunities to do that same-same. A rule of thumb in parenting is to praise in public, and chastise in private. So if there’s a public opportunity to give kudos to the employee, she might really appreciate it and it might also help how she is perceived within the company. It’s a win-win to point out when someone is doing well. Even kids who earn As need a pat on the back for that work, regardless of expectation.

      1. Logan*

        Just realized this is what my manager does. I’ve been feeling horribly demoralized because I only ever get negative feedback, but then in our big all-office staff meetings he’ll praise my work…. Makes me feel absolutely awful! So perhaps don’t JUST praise in public. I honestly had the impression that I was awful and he was just trying to make our team look good in front of others…..

  11. CTT*

    I really second what Alison says about positive feedback not having to be lengthy. I’m an attorney in my 2nd year of practice, and I’ve really appreciated when I get a document back from the supervising attorney with a note that says “great job on this! Make these 2 changes and you can send to the client.” It literally fits on a post-it, but it’s good to see instead of having to wait for my annual review to find out what I’m doing well.

    1. yala*

      And there’s really such a difference in tone between that and “You need to make these 2 changes before sending to the client.” Literally just those four words at the beginning are the difference between “This can be improved, but you’re doing well” and “You didn’t do this right.”

      It’s so demoralizing to only get the latter.

      1. Zephy*

        My current office’s whole workflow is based on “you didn’t do this right.” If I submit something for review and hear nothing about it ever again, it was flawless. There’s a layer of QC between me and the final approvers, so if there’s something wrong, I get an email with a laundry list of things to fix. The fewer things on that list, the better I did the first time around. It’s just demoralizing to only ever get “you didn’t do this right” and never “this one’s almost perfect, just fix this.” Or even “Looks good, sending off for final approval now.” I know this is just how things are done here, and I’m trying to imagine/pretend there’s the “almost perfect” at the top of the shorter fix-it lists, which helps. But sometimes it feels like I’m working harder to protect my fragile ego from this bad system than I am on my actual job duties.

        1. yala*

          Ugh. I’m so sorry, that really is demoralizing. It’s such a small thing, but it can really GET to you after a while. (For a years, the person checking my work would come back with “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” every time there were errors–and this was when I was learning, so it happened often enough that it just felt…horrible. But when I brought that up with a supervisor once, not even as a “this is so mean” but as a “hey, this is really uncomfortable, and I know they mean absolutely nothing by it, but could possibly happen less please?” it…didn’t go well, and has been trotted out years later when said supervisor needs to call me over-sensitive.)

          I’ve definitely been in the whole “mentally adding ‘almost perfect'” or “these were all perfect, good job” to things. I don’t think it’s about protecting your fragile ego, or that your ego is even fragile at all. It’s just…easy to start thinking your bad at your job if you only hear negative.

          Besides, self-evaluations are a thing, and I’m realizing now they probably go better if *you* at least remember the times you did things well. (I’ve started keeping a list, because last year’s caught me flat-footed)

    2. Sylvia*

      Unfortunately, the managing attorney in our office is very no-nonsense and can be very short with his feedback because he’s such a “to the point” person. I’m just admin myself, but I’ve definitely seen our associate attorneys practically doing cartwheels trying to get a good word out of him. I don’t think he’s deliberately being cruel, but he’s just oblivious to that kind of thing.

      1. Glitsy Gus*

        My last manager was like this. Fortunately, she’s overall a nice enough person, she will just never be one to offer a lot of praise. Once I figured that out, it made it a lot easier, but, really, it would have been nice to get a “good job on that” every once and a while.

    3. Joielle*

      Yes! This makes such a difference. I’m also an attorney – not in traditional practice, but at the risk of being too vague, I produce a lot of documents that get reviewed by my supervisor and various experts before they’re released to the public. So I get a LOT of feedback on my work. It takes two seconds to frame the feedback as being overall positive, before moving on to edits, and it makes a big difference in terms of morale.

    4. Paris Geller*

      Yeah, I think a lot of managers get caught in this trap where they think feedback of any kind needs to be lengthy and formal, when in reality the best managers I’ve ever had always incorporated feedback into our work life naturally. Of course there were one-on-ones and annual reviews, but nothing said in those were ever a surprise because, well, we had been talking about my strengths and things I could have improved upon the entire time, we just never outright stated that’s what we we were doing.

  12. 2legit*

    I would love the day when I can quit my current job. I am doing the work of two people and I rarely get positive feedback. The amount of work is just considered normal and I feel taken for granted.

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Speaking up to my Old Boss about that kind of thing (our workload under her was at times literally inhumane. Nobody should be pounded into the ground like that in this day and age.) would get a response along the lines of “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is here. Your problem is you can’t multitask.” Her hires, whether new from outside the company or long-timers coming from another team, tended to leave as soon as an opportunity arose. More power to them. I would if I could, but I stagnated under her and learned almost nothing to take me to the next level ay a new employer, and I don’t want to end up doing the same crap work in a different place.

  13. Lisa*

    Kudos to LW’s employee for bringing this up and effectively showing examples of disparate treatment. Many people wouldn’t feel comfortable articulating that to their boss and would just stew over it until one of them left the company. I’m hopeful there will be a happy ending here!

  14. Just do it! It works*

    If you do this consciously for a while – even if you have to use reminders – you will soon be doing it regularly, because you will see the benefits as your direct reports become more confident and happier in their jobs

  15. KHB*

    My boss has a habit (which is rubbing off on me) of framing routine positive feedback as “thanks.” As in, “Thanks for getting project X done on time,” “Thanks for your ideas at Y meeting,” etc. I think it works because we already have a script for giving thanks as a matter of social obligation (“Thanks, Aunt Sally, for the lovely Christmas sweater…”) so it doesn’t feel weird to thank someone for doing something that we always expected them to do. But once you’re in “thanks mode,” it’s easier to segue into more meaningful feedback (“Thanks for getting project X done on time – I’m really pleased with how it came out.”)

  16. yala*

    I virtually never get positive feedback from my boss. Sometimes I do in a very stilted, “Oh, I just remembered I should say something positive” way. Which…doesn’t feel great, but it DOES feel better than NOT getting it, because essentially unless I hear “yes, you did the thing right” I’m going to stress out worrying that I actually didn’t get the thing right. Not for every single small thing, but it’s like Allison said–when the majority of the feedback is only for Problems/Things That Need Improvement, you start to feel like that’s the majority of your work.

    The past few months I was averaging 8-10 teapots when my goal had been set as 5-6. I never got a word acknowledging that I was exceeding my goal. Only if there was a mispainted flower (which, once I learned to paint the figurative teapots, did not happen very often).

    1. yala*

      On a more positive note, after a meeting the other week (via Zoom), a coworker in another department left me a message saying I’d asked good questions she’d been wondering about and to thank me for helping her with her computer, and those were little things, nothing major, but it made my day because it just felt *nice* to have someone positively acknowledge something I did.

      It’s really really dragging to not get that.

  17. Sloan Kittering*

    A little off to the side of the question, OP, but a guess: are you also like this with *yourself*? A saw a counselor who once pointed out I had this thought pattern (I expected perfection from myself and never gave myself any credit when things went well, only beat myself up for any errors) – and upon reflection I realized I tended to treat other people the same way. It was an outward manifestation of my own personal failings. Fixing it was both an inner relief and made my social life run a lot smoother too!

    1. yala*

      I was wondering that too! It seems to just be OP’s default.

      I’m reminded of a thing I see in a lot of bullet journals where folks leave a space to write down one thing a day that they were grateful for. A lot of people say at the beginning that it’s a little hard, especially on bad days. But after you get in the habit, you find yourself more consciously noticing and appreciating good things.

    2. Kiki*

      Yes! It’s also something that can be picked up from previous environments. I grew up in a place where people were very rude to and dismissive of me unless I absolutely excelled. Anything short of perfection and I may as well not have done anything at all. It took a lot of work (and therapy, tbh) to realize this mindset is not healthy and fair to inflict on other people (or myself).

    3. Filosofickle*

      It was suggested to me that my aversion to managing people might be because I am so hard on myself and didn’t want anyone else to be subject to that critic in my head. Bingo.

      This has been the biggest way managing others has not worked out for me. I expect more than most people can reasonably do; my standards are very high and I don’t know how to coach performance or better explain my expectations in advance. Since I don’t know how to change that, I choose not to manage people.

  18. OyHiOh*

    I helped change the culture of an org I worked for a few years ago.

    It was a non profit arts academy/pre professional theater, the directors of which come from professional theater training and experience. To say they have high expectations of staff, volunteers, and actors is an understatement. There was zero acknowledgement of work well done, you only heard what could be better (and there was always something that could be done better . . .).

    When I took a staff position, I started saying thank you. The box office manager said “but I’m just doing my job!” And I said, “and I want you to know I appreciate what you do.” Over time, people stopped being surprised when I thanked them for doing expected tasks well. After a year or so, the demanding directors started doing the same thing. I left that job close to 2 years ago but the positive culture I started in the kitchen has spread to the entire org and remains though I am long gone. The high expectations are still there, it’s just that people are much more regularly acknowledged for the work and hours they put in.

    Learning how to notice and comment on doing the job well/to high expectations is worth so much. It makes going to work much less of a drudge.

    1. BRR*

      That’s really interesting. I have a performing arts background, no longer in the arts, and I think I need less positive feedback than others. I’ve always attributed it to the arts because it’s so common to just go and take so much feedback on things to work from. I don’t even think it was as much expectations as much as you go into your lesson or rehearsal with the mindset of “what needs to be worked on?”

      1. OyHiOh*

        Part of the reason why I did it was my personal background, admittedly. A number of family members are creatives/performers, including one of my parents, and growing up, I never, ever heard anything positive about my performance efforts. It was incredibly hurtful as a teen/young adult and made me feel like I could never perform well enough to be worth noticing.

        Because this particular org is a pre professional/development theater, it trains a lot of teens/young adults, and a lot of tge students volunteer in other ways when not in a show – servers for dinner theater shows, things like that. Dropping a “job well done,” “wow, you handled that like you’ve been doing it forward” about off stage work didn’t interfere with the directors and rewarded/noticed work the theater thrived on.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      See, I worked somewhere where this was the culture and it drove me nuts. People would say, “Thanks for coming in today!” on days I was regularly scheduled to work. Or “Thanks for helping out with grooming the llamas!” on days I was scheduled to groom llamas. I felt patronized.

      I later found out that the reason I was getting all of these positive compliments was, in fact, because many of my coworkers were not meeting expectations and thus showing up reliably at the places you were supposed to be, at the time you were supposed to be there, ready to work on the tasks you were supposed to be working on, made you an exceptional employee in comparison. But it rubbed me the wrong way for a long time.

      1. OyHiOh*

        So an example of what I mean: When I started, the manager and I decided we wanted to have menus posted on line 3 months in advance. It was part of my succession planning to work ahead – what if Oy gets hit by a bus, what do we need to know to keep going – but it meant an extra thing Suzie had to do up at the box office.

        Hey, thanks for getting the menus up this week. They look great! To acknowledge that, while it’s Suzie’s job to do that piece, I appreciate that it’s done and done well.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Well done. This does work, one person can change an entire group.

      I worked one place where the bosses said that supervisors should not say please and thank you because that is a show of weakness. (They were big on talking about what showed weakness. Concern about showing weakness, to me, spells weakness.)

      So I made sure I was saying please and thank you loudly when they were around. I said it anyways, but I got louder near them.
      It was interesting what happened next.
      “Gee, NSN, you always tell us thank you. YOU are the only one around here who appreciates us.”
      After they heard many comments like this, that whole thing about show of weakness went away.

      Eh. Not my fault they said things like that……

  19. CurlyG*

    I have struggled with this for years and I’ll second Allison’s suggestion of putting something on your calendar that prompts you to give positive feedback, as that’s what ended up working for me. I realized later that my upbringing in a house with two military parents raised me to not need accolades or praise, as that was reserved for truly exceptional events and not how you were expected to behave/perform regularly.

  20. AdAgencyChick*

    One thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years: Managers are often very specific in their negative feedback, but general in their positive feedback. We’ll say, “you should have done X, Y, and Z differently,” but then “Great job on the Beeblebrox presentation!”

    So I’ve been trying more consciously to say things like “Great job on the Beeblebrox presentation! I was impressed by how you kept your cool even when Zaphod was grilling you on the details, and your slide set was concisely written and easy to understand.”

  21. TomC*

    I have a question about this! I’m regularly asked by students to give feedback on their resume and portfolio. If it’s generally good, I always start by saying so and what I like about it, but then I go into a laundry list of things to improve, of varying levels of difficulty/importance (e.g., “I’d redo your entire format” to “you misspelled prototype”). Do you similarly recommend weighting feedback in this context? I’ve sometimes felt like I’m too negative in these contexts, but not sure if this is a good template to use here?

    1. Lilyp*

      I think a one-off critique is different from a management relationship so it’s not as important for the morale aspect BUT it would probably be really helpful for the students to hear specifically and in detail what they are doing right, just because that’s useful information on what to prioritize/not change and how to think about different aspects of their resumes. I think it’s ok to weigh more towards suggestions since that’s the point of a critique but “don’t change x it’s working really well” or “make sure to maintain y once as you add more jobs” are really useful pieces of feedback.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Don’t say it’s good then tell them to redo their ENTIRE format. No, that’s not good. At best it sounds like you don’t hear your own words, it’s confusing to the listener.

      Let your lead in match the rest of your comments.
      “You actually have a good resume here, what we are going to go over are some minor things such as spelling and punctuation.”
      “You have done some good work and people will be interested in it. What we are going to work on here is structuring your resume so that people can pick right on what you have to offer them. And we will fix a couple typos on the way.”

      If you find parts of the resume/portfolio are solid, be sure to point it out, “Keep this. This part here is really good.”

  22. Faberge Otter*

    Here’s the difficulty I have with positive feedback: I feel like I always sound insincere. It doesn’t matter how sincerely I feel “wow, they did a good job organizing that.” I feel silly saying “you did a good job organizing that,” and because I feel silly saying it, I feel like it sounds insincere, random, or even patronizing. Like a kindergarten teacher praising a stick figure drawing she didn’t really look at. Any tips to mitigating that? I know positive feedback is important to people; I’ve just never figured out how to get comfortable saying it. (It’s really a personality thing, I’m sure. When someone praises my work, I usually feel detached or puzzled about the compliment. So since I don’t really care about getting positive feedback, you can imagine it makes it tough to give it.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I suspect the answer is you just need to make yourself do it anyway and with time it’ll stop feeling weird to you, but can you say more about why you feel silly? What specifically feels silly about it? (Any chance you grew up in a household where you didn’t get much praise? That’ll make you feel silly about doing it yourself.)

      1. Faberge Otter*

        It’s true, my family is really non-expressive! So the positive feedback I’m most familiar with is the exaggerated “Good job!” you tell kids, and I don’t want someone to feel like I view them as a little kid who needs that kind of exaggerated response. I guess it feels silly because it feels like “saying something we already both know.” Even if mentally I know that student worker may not realize she did a good job, saying “hey that was a good job” feels a little like saying “hey if it’s raining we’re going to get wet”–redundant and kind of annoying.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yep, that’ll do it. Your norms got wired in early in a way that doesn’t correlate well with most people’s norms. There’s nothing wrong with that if you’re happy, but when you’re managing people, you’ve got to recognize it and adjust for it. Would it feel less awkward to you if you were really specific — so it’s not “good job” but rather “when Bob said X in the meeting, your explanation of the challenges was really compelling and laid it out in a way I think made sense to people there without a background in Y.” Or so forth — talking specifics instead of thinking of it in terms of general praise?

          1. Faberge Otter*

            Definitely–I don’t want to alienate someone who deserves to know they’re doing well, but I also feel alienating them by making them feel patronized. I do really like the advice people are giving for specificity, and to frame it in terms of “I like how you handled X, I thought Y was a good approach,” etc. Focusing on specifics helps it feel less random (the feeling of randomness may be purely in my imagination, but it’s still a hurdle) — and framing it as “I like” helps me feel more sincere and therefore convey sincerity.

            I really appreciate the advice. This is something that has troubled me for awhile!

            1. allathian*

              Specific positive feedback usually also feels more sincere to the recipient. If you feel awkward giving general positive feedback, many recipients will feel awkward, too, simply because they’ll notice your awkwardness.

              Also, general praise isn’t as helpful to kids, either, as parents and educators often think. It’s better to be more specific there too.

        2. Nonprofit Nancy*

          Someone above had a wonderful comment about trying to be more *specific* about positive feedback, rather than just saying “great job” but having six “do this, not that,” type comments that are more nitty gritty. Perhaps you would feel less disingenuous if you focused on *specific* things that worked well, and considered that part of the feedback task? After all, just speaking practically you wouldn’t want them to change something that was working well.

    2. Smithy*

      Like with anything – practice makes these things easier. And if it feels very uncomfortable now, then just taking the time to practice at home, practice with friends, family, customer service reps – etc.

      On the flip side, try incorporating it into writing at first with staff. There’s time to proof read, edit, and take your time while still getting the message.

      1. Faberge Otter*

        I do love writing for this reason. It’s very hard for me to hit the right tone when giving verbal feedback, but in writing, I can always count on the reader to insert the tone they like :) After it sounds more natural in email, it will probably come more naturally face to face.

        1. old curmudgeon*

          The other nice thing about giving positive feedback in writing is that if someone later has just a really awful day through no fault of their own, it can really be a day-brightener to go back and reread a short note that calls out something they just nailed perfectly.

          Not that I’d know this from personal experience or anything.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Try shifting to more personal statements. Like, instead of, “You did a great job organizing that,” turn it into, “I like the way you organized that.” Or something like, “That’s a great solution, I never would have thought of that.” Stay away from the “Great job!” cheerleader-sounding stuff and just relay your thoughts. Get more specific if that helps– “I like how you put the green teapots between the blue and black ones, it looks great.”

      1. Evan Þ.*

        Plus, to some people (like me), more specific praise feels more genuine and more substantial – so even if it feels just as uncomfortable to you, it might sound better to your employees!

        1. Threeve*

          I’ll take a “great teapots this week,” but “you really made improvements on the bottom half of the handles” is so much more meaningful, even though it’s a narrower compliment.

          1. Faberge Otter*

            Oh, I like all of these! Giving it a context of stating my preference (“I like how you did that”) does help take away some of the awkward. I figured it comes down to practice, but giving it context and getting specific does kind of smooth the way for me.

    4. LQ*

      Honestly the best tip I have is keep doing it. I’d also say that the more specific it is the less weird it feels. “You did a good job organizing that” is good. But “The plan you created, making sure everyone understood each step, and the backup information for each potential failure point made this event successful.” Is much easier.

      I say this as someone who feels like you on this for the most part. Your job is not to feel comfortable. Your job is to feel uncomfortable so suck it up and do the right thing which is giving good, clear, well constructed feedback. (I may have put something like this in a private meeting for myself to get into the habit of it.)

      1. Faberge Otter*

        Thanks! Those are all really good points. I fret less about feeling uncomfortable and more about making the other person feel uncomfortable (“ugh, it’s so fake when she says ‘good job'”), and maybe that’s all in my head anyway. I know positive feedback is important, so I try to discipline myself to give it anyway, but it will definitely be easier when thinking in terms of “identify specific things.” After all, if someone is doing a good job, it shouldn’t be too hard to find specifics about what’s so good!

        1. LQ*

          One of my direct reports gets really uncomfortable so I’ve started just saying to her, “I’m not saying this to be nice, I’m saying it because you need to know this to do your job well.” Then detailed positive feedback. Then I give her about 2 seconds to feel uncomfortable and hear it and then I move onto something else unless she’s got a genuine question about it.

          The “I’m not saying this to be nice” really helps though for her at least. It kind of takes it out of the realm of social compliment where we are supposed to be uncomfortable, and into just normal performance conversation. (And I’m not, I’m not being nice, I’m doing my job, and she’s doing hers, excellently.)

          And the more you do it for the people who report to you the better they will get at taking the positive feedback.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Then move away from the phrase “good job”. I never once said that to anyone in all the years I have trained and supervised. The reason I never said it is because it sounds like I am potty training a 2 year old. Seriously. It just does not fit my personality and my way of thinking about things. It feels condescending and insincere.

          Think of things you ARE sincere about.
          “Wow, I never would have thought of that!”
          “Oh that was really quick thinking on your part!”
          “I can’t believe you found x, I looked all over. Thank you!”

  23. Firecat*

    This is the exact process I use for my interns!
    My students pulled out some fantastic projects in programs they had never used and consistent, fair, accurate feedback was a major part of it. Prior to the review I would do exactly what Alison says and give a percentage score to the positive. Then after I drafted my review I would wheedle out any negative feedback and boost the positive feedback until it reflected close to that ratio. Not only does this make the review fairer, it helps you zone in to only the most important issues to address and maximizes the chance your direct report can retain and act on the feedback.

    I can also speak from experience that when you are delivering fantastic work, getting a great on paper review, yet having to sit through an hour of criticism with only a token “but you know you are great” at the end of it feels awful. It’s one of the reasons I quit and got a new job (in a pandemic no less!). So this sort of positive reinforcement is just as vital as critical or constructive for the health of your team.

  24. SweetTooth*

    First, I KNOW it’s not the same, but I made more of an effort to vocalize things I was thinking with my husband. Like, thanks for taking out the trash or for cooking dinner, or you look nice in that shirt, or I love it when you sing. It’s not that I didn’t have the thoughts of appreciation before, but it took a conscious effort to remember to say them TO him so that he knew how I felt.

    It’s something I noticed my director doing at work – it can be just a quick email response to thank me for following up on something to tell me I did a good job on a presentation. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, or gushing, but a positive thing can just be thanking someone for being reliable and on top of things. Just a quick, genuine word of thanks or affirmation can really make a difference.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      “Thanks for holding the cat while I shoved his evening pills down his throat, I really appreciate being able to do that without getting lacerated” – that’s a regular one in our household.

  25. insert pun here*

    It may also help to specifically say what your metric for having done a great job is. For example, I often ask my direct report to do the first draft of a certain kind of memo that I’ve been writing for almost two decades. “Great job” isn’t necessarily “I made no changes to this, it’s perfect” it’s more “you got 90% of the ideas into this text and I’m going to make small changes throughout.” I have literally 10x more experience doing this, I have absolutely zero expectation that they’re going to read my mind and write it exactly as I would have.

  26. NW Mossy*

    One strategy I’ve used to practice giving praise is that when someone says something in a meeting that makes you take notice in a positive way, say it right then in the moment. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that – that’s a great point/question” is a quick and easy way to acknowledge someone’s contribution, especially when delivered in a genuinely warm and appreciative tone.

    1. Nonprofit Nancy*

      This is great, it’s something I need to work on myself – give praise in the second, and be generous with it.

  27. Elbereth*

    I worked in an area where feedback to a person about their work was always critical, but often enough good things were said when they weren’t there. I made it my mission to let people know when their work was praised behind their back – whether they were people I managed, coworkers, or even my boss. It really made a difference to the whole work environment.

  28. Grand Mouse*

    Positive feedback is just as constructive as negative feedback! I had a boss who always was criticizing me and I never knew what she wanted. So saying when I did do it right would have been very helpful. As it was, I would get a note that said I did it wrong, I would ask how to do it better and redo it. I would never get told how she wanted it or if I was doing it right, just that the criticism stopped?? so I guess good enough?

  29. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Yikes, I’ve never ran into this kind of manager before. Hard to please, sure that happens but someone who only ever gives corrective feedback is a recipe for losing great employees.

    I’ve put up with some less than great work conditions, busted my ass and did extra because my bosses have always made it a point to be pleased with my “excellence”. You can’t just expect someone to tirelessly be “excellent” without actively acknowledging it’s not the norm.

    You have to learn to gauge your expectations better, along with learning to give positive praise. You are putting yourself and others who are excellent a huge disadvantage.

    I have huge standards for myself and I hold myself up to a much higher bar than many people find fair or sustainable. However I have learned to adjust that for EVERYONE else in the world, including my reports and even bosses. It has done me a world of good and helps you personally stay much more positive and in tune with the world around you, instead of ending up trapped inside yourself where you’re going to be disappointed or less happy in the long run because SO many people out there will let you down. And the ones who don’t, won’t like you much and will leave the first chance they get.

    So dig in deep, you sound like you want to change and you understand that you’re doing something wrong. So this isn’t to beat you up, just to keep encouraging you to do much better!

    1. Nonprofit Nancy*

      The other downside, I find, is that your best performers are treated no better than anyone else, but they may literally be doing more or better work. The floor always seems to rise underneath them, and they are likely going to go elsewhere eventually because they got demoralized.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        This is true. It goes to show that stretching to give positive feedback over all helps everyone. Including morale of the people who aren’t necessary the best.

        The better the morale is, the more likely, you’re tapping everyone’s full potential. Yeah you’ll still get people who don’t meet the mark but they’re easier to spot and remove if necessary as well. Otherwise you just have a bunch of people who are chugging along and seeing no reason to go above and beyond.

  30. Katherine*

    I worked for a boss like this once. I did good, accurate work and kept on top of my workload (including filing!) while it increased nearly four-fold over the course of a single 12-month period. My manager not only didn’t offer any words of appreciation, or even any words to indicate that he noticed my increased workload, but he also started treating me weirdly and accused me of deliberately damaging company property, which I of course hadn’t done. I put in my two weeks’ notice the next day.

  31. California Ltd.*

    Your first positive feedback can be that your employee did a great job giving you constructive feedback with some specific examples that helped you put your management style in context. And that it was so much better to address this directly so that it could be solved.

  32. NomadiCat*

    A trick I learned back when I was a coach that I also use as a manager: tell them what they’re doing right so they know to keep doing it the right way.

    You may expect high performance as a part of your employee’s basic duties, but if you don’t tell them what they’re doing well, they may never know what high performance looks like or if they’re achieving it. And given how quickly things change day to day these days, regularly reinforcing what kind of behavior or results are working is honestly key to maintaining your employee’s ability and willingness to do their job.

    1. yala*

      That’s so simple and exactly it. It’s hard to be confident or really learn complicated processes when you never definitively hear “you are doing this correctly.”

      It’s not even so much a self esteem thing as it is a clarity thing.

  33. WantonSeedStitch*

    I think that it’s common for a lot of managers to forget about positive feedback, or to misunderstand how to give it, or why it even exists.
    Positive feedback is not:
    * Just to make an employee feel good about themselves
    * Just for cases where someone has gone above and beyond expectations
    * Meaningless compliments

    Positive feedback, to be effective, has to be SPECIFIC, pointing towards specific things the person has done. “Good job” and “great to have you on the team” are wishy-washy. “You nailed that presentation” is only slightly better. “I really liked the way you outlined the data privacy policy in such a clear way. You not only explained the importance of it, but offered people suggestions on ways of recording useful information that DON’T violate the policy” is better still. CONTEXT is important. Why is what they did a good thing? How does it impact you/the team/company/etc.? (“Thanks for including the charts on our progress in that report. Upper management really likes things to be expressed graphically, and this will make them more likely to pay attention than including the info in narrative form.”) Because it should be specific and have context, positive feedback should also be TIMELY. Don’t wait until an end of the year review to give someone positive feedback. And if you want to encourage further behavior similar to what the person has done, you should establish that: (“The executive summary at the start of this report was a great idea. It makes the whole thing easier to digest and remember. Can you include something similar at the start of all your reports?”)

  34. Bend & Snap*

    I had a boss who valued process over results and would constantly ding me on minscule things while ignoring the big picture. I crushed my metrics every quarter and still got dinged on the regular.

    I got laid off earlier this year and it was kind of a relief. My new boss gives both critical and positive feedback.

  35. Venus*

    Praise can also be quickly done by email, in particular as a response or follow-up to work that they have sent you. I like getting emails sometimes, and they can also be referred to in future.

  36. Heidi*

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if this were the boss of the OP from last week who wanted to get more positive feedback from their boss? It would be a full circle moment!

  37. Cobol*

    Something I didn’t think about, make sure the positive feedback is truly about something your employee did well and is important.
    I get a lot of positive feedback from my boss, but it’s always about something super minor. It’s often more disheartening than nothing at all, although admittedly I don’t really like positive feedback.

  38. AnotherSarah*

    The other reason for positive feedback is to make sure the employee knows what to repeat in the future! I had a supervisor who would only try to troubleshoot. So if a project I did was strong in x and y but z needed work, he’d mention z only. The next time, I’d change all three elements, and only then I’d learn that x and y were excellent last time, why didn’t I do them the same this time?

    1. Megabeth*

      That’s a very good point! Positive feedback isn’t just flattery, it can be instructive as well. So many times I’ve wondered if I was doing something well, or just well enough to get by, and if my managers had said something even as lukewarm as “That’s what I was wanting to see, thanks” would have been a huge boost.

  39. Suffering spouse*

    As far a I am concerned, a meets expectations rating is an insult to any effective and efficient employee

    1. Nea*

      It is an insult, because it frankly makes them look mediocre. The world is full of mediocre workers, so why protect this one during layoffs? Why give this one a chance to move within the company? Why give this one a raise?

      Wait, why is an employee who consistently met high expectations marching out the door?

  40. TiffIf*

    One additional thought–in your one on one meetings with your employees do you give them time to talk about their accomplishments?

    I recently made it my personal goal to update something that was causing intermittent issues but that nobody had the time to figure out how to fix so it wouldn’t block our workflows. (The real fix is dependent on a different department and we’ve never had much luck in getting them to fix the things we bring to their attention). So I figure out a way around the issue that still worked to verify what we needed to despite the other department’s issue.

    In my one on one with my supervisor last week I totally bragged about it. It was something no one else had thought to do, fixed something that had been breaking intermittently for more than a year so it no longer hindered our processes and now takes 1/3 the time it used to to do.

    Let your employees tell you about their accomplishments and compliment/congratulate/give positive feedback to them appropriately when they do!

  41. LN*

    I love all of this advice!

    Not directly relevant to OP, but I want to give a plug for Random Acts of Positive Feedback outside of the direct manager/employee relationship. When I was new at my company I was amazed when, on a couple of occasions, someone a few levels above me or tangentially involved on a project took a few seconds to send a “nice job!” note on something they had no obligation to send me feedback on. I was not particularly exceptional–my field is very relationship-heavy, and a lot of successful folks have just gotten great at investing in relationships across the board.

    (It DID feel a little awkward to receive notes like that, but that awkwardness was always outweighed by the delight of receiving it!)

  42. Oops, not your project?*

    This actually remind me of a review I had many years ago. It was bad marks throughout the entire review because of project that had gone wrong. My boss needed to make sure everyone was aware of how badly this project had gone. I personally had spent 1 hour on this 500 hour project where I did a code review. As he was doing my review he realized how badly skewed it was for a project that wasn’t mine, especially since the program I reviewed wasn’t the one that had gone wrong.

  43. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    Speaking up to my Old Boss about that kind of thing (our workload under her was at times literally inhumane. Nobody should be pounded into the ground like that in this day and age.) would get a response along the lines of “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is here. Your problem is you can’t multitask.” Her hires, whether new from outside the company or long-timers coming from another team, tended to leave as soon as an opportunity arose. More power to them. I would if I could, but I stagnated under her and learned almost nothing to take me to the next level ay a new employer, and I don’t want to end up doing the same crap work in a different place.

  44. Kesnit*

    Wait… Bosses give positive feedback? And this is normal?

    As I read people’s comments, I kept trying to remember instances where I’ve gotten positive feedback for my work, but nothing is coming to mind. (I’ve been in the workforce about 20 years, other than the 3 years I went back to school.) In the military, everything was negative. My reviews were fine, but I cannot recall ever hearing a “good job.” During the 5 years I worked as support in for a federal law enforcement agency, it was negative. (I even got a review once where I had been doing a job for about 9 months. Then someone – a Special Agent – came in and took over my job. A few months later, he wrote my review – having never actually been in the work center he was supposed to supervise – and gave me a horrible review. I have always regretted not contesting that…) Looking back over this calendar year, I can remember every incident of constructive criticism I have gotten, but not a single “good job” comes to mind. (Again, my review was fine, so it isn’t that I am doing a bad job.)

  45. "Helpful" Sister*

    Anyone have advice on specific ways to incorporate more positive feedback when your team does the same type of work day in and day out (and does it well)? I find it very natural to give positive feedback and thanks when unusual situations come up, like a particularly tough case that I hear about, or a coverage situation (where people pitch in to cover an absence). But, the vast majority of the time, it’s the same activity/widgets every day, and all the steps involved have to be completed (otherwise it’s a problem). There aren’t a lot of new projects/ideas for trying new things/instances where people are doing things outside their normal daily workload (or even instances when I can directly observe them doing their daily work, think an area with privacy regulations at play). Our team is very high functioning and everything runs smoothly nearly all the time. How do I keep positive feedback fresh, instead of “great job doing everything that was assigned to you on time, again”? I don’t want to miss opportunities to praise people, just because they haven’t had any out of the ordinary situations come up.

  46. End of day*

    I try to end the day by saying, “Thank you for the work you did today” or “I appreciate your hard work today”. Sometimes I have to walk back into the office to say it, because I forget sometimes, too.

    1. yala*

      As much as I am for giving positive feedback, I will say that I’ve gotten stuff like this–supervisor coming back as an afterthought to offer a generic statement (“Good morning” or “Thank you”) and…it feels deeply uncomfortable. Like they didn’t want to, but realized they’re Supposed To.

      That could be a matter of tone and supervisor, tho.

      But also, I feel like just getting the same “thank you” at the end of each day is…I mean, it’s nice, it’s probably better than nothing, but it’s still not really the same as positive feedback, because it’s not really specifically about the work and the quality thereof.

      It is nice tho, but probably not what OP’s employee is looking for.

  47. Hank Stevens*

    I try to apply Positive Coaching Alliance principles when possible even though I know coaching sports doesn’t line up exsactly with coaching employees, but the basic tenet is 7 positive feedbacks to 1 constructive criticism. It works pretty well.

  48. Pamela*

    Most people in surveys say they don’t receive enough positive feedback from their boss. Even if your employee knows they’re doing good work, it’s important for the employee to know that YOU know it as well. When you do provide feedback on something that needs improvement, the employee will know that you have a fair and balanced perspective on their performance – you don’t just see the problems or development needs they have. Also, positive feedback is most helpful when it is specific. Not just “You did a good job on that report” but “I noticed you provided a thorough review of the process you used, that was really helpful!” It’s so affirming to know that your boss really pays attention to and can give you kudos on the particulars. Plus, share the impact – “That was really helpful because I wasn’t aware how much time you had to spend on…” Or, “That was an excellent approach because the other members of the team can use a similar process for [whatever they’re working on].” What you’re pointing out, why it was good, and appreciation is a good formula for positive feedback. And it only takes a minute!

  49. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    From the stellar employee who regularly put in double the amount of work compared to what was required and got hauled into the head office for a dressing-down on the one occasion I made a mistake (discovering at the same time that the person who was supposed to check my work was simply not bothering to do so), and whose manager then decided the dressing down might as well segue into the annual review to save making me come back another day… thank you for showing your appreciation.

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