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Providing Feedback

Updated on April 29, 2017

SHAPING BEHAVIOUR: Behaviour that’s rewarded will be repeated!

Four-year-old Arthur has just spent three hours on his own in his bedroom teaching himself how to tie his shoelaces. He finally comes running out and says, “Daddy, daddy, look! I can tie my own shoelaces!”. And his father says, “Tuck your shirt in Arthur!”

Managers, people in general, have a natural inclination to look for the things that are wrong, the problems, difficulties, dangers, etc., and most managers, besides not naturally looking for what is right, also find it a bit embarrassing to provide positive personal feedback.

Providing effective positive feedback is the easiest and most motivating way to shape someone’s behaviour. If you are a manager and feel a bit hesitant about telling people what you like about them or what you like about what they are doing, get over it! This is the good stuff and once applied will not only motivate others, it will make you feel good too.

Most people understand the concept of ‘Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated’. That is how we train animals and we have a natural tendency to ‘train’ children in the same way. Think about what a parent does the first time a child uses a potty. Why does the parent clap excitedly, laying on the praise as if it’s the best thing they have ever seen? Part of the reason is it that they are proud but it’s much more likely that they are relieved that the nappy phase is almost over. They realise that this will make their lives a lot easier and that positive feedback will ensure that this particular behaviour is repeated.

It is important however that feedback is communicated correctly so that the receiver knows that it is 100% sincere and behaviourally specific. Telling a child that he’s been a good boy and expecting them to know the specific behaviour to repeat, is pointless. The same concept is true for adults. Praising a salesperson, for example by saying, “Well done! That was a brilliant sale”, provides no substance for the person to judge the sincerity of the message and certainly no indication of the behaviour required to repeat the success.


All coaching, training, leadership, and management of people requires using effective feedback skills. This feedback, to be constructive and effective, needs to be communicated in such a way that the person feels motivated to either repeat successful behaviours, or improve unsatisfactory performance.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is specific information about what someone is doing well. To ensure your intention is communicated accurately, it is important to always provide a 'WHAT and a WHY' in your feedback. In other words, the person must know exactly whatwas done well (the specific behaviour) and whyyou liked it. This will ensure that the feedback is seen to be sincere and the specific behaviour is repeated. For example, “I really admired the way you kept calm with that customer. He was quite aggressive and yet you let him finish, acknowledged his disappointment and calmly offered to fix the situation for him. I am so impressed with the way you manage your emotions.”

Feedback for Improvement

Feedback for improvement is specific information, about WHATwas done and WHY it wasn’t effective. It is then followed up with WHAT the alternative is and WHY it would have been more effective. It is preferable where appropriate, to pull the second ‘what and why’ from the other person.

For example, “I noticed that when the customer said they didn’t understand, you repeated what you had just said and the customer was no clearer. It would have been better if you had asked the customer at that stage what they weren’t clear about so that you could explain that particular point in a different way.”

Or even better, to involve the person in a coaching style: “I noticed that when the customer said they didn’t understand, you repeated what you had just said and the customer was no clearer. What could you have done at that stage that would have helped you to get through to that customer? Once they have answered, ask, “And how would that have helped?” This gets them to provide the second ‘what and why’.

Maintaining Self-Esteem

The ‘what’ ensures that the focus is based on a specific behaviour rather than on a person’s character. Consider the difference between, “What’s wrong with you, you’re so unreliable” and, “You said you would bring me the report by five and you didn’t, so I didn’t have the stats needed for the meeting”.

Summary Guidelines

There are several guidelines to follow when giving effective feedback:

  • Feedback must be delivered with gravitas. Calmly at a measured pace, directly, with eye-contact and letting them feel and hear your sincerity.
  • We often give feedback based on results, this doesn’t have the same impact as behavioural feedback. Don't respond too quickly with feedback until you know exactly what the person has done (rather than just achieved). Ask questions and listen carefully to how they have achieved it, and then you can reinforce the specific behaviour.
  • Don’t pay compliments just to make someone feel good. Your intention needs to be honest and sincere. Don't say that something was done well when it wasn't and if you can’t think of anything good to say, rather remain quiet.
  • Don’t ever use the word, 'but' or ‘however’when giving feedback. It’s annoying, disrespectful and manipulative. Trying to ‘hide’ uncomfortable feedback in-between positive feedback, makes the good feedback appear insincere. So many managers have been taught the ‘Pat-Kick-Pat’ approach to providing feedback or perhaps you know it as the ‘Sandwich Technique’. This is the technique of starting with positive feedback, sneaking in the negative feedback, and then quickly ending with more positive feedback.
  • Keep it separate. If your intention is to give positive feedback, give it anywhere and in front of anyone. If you want to give feedback for improvement, give it privately, in a calm environment, focusing on the specific behaviour rather than the person’s character.
  • Don’t give vague or unsupported feedback. Always supply the reason. Be specific about what was said or done and why you feel thebehaviour was effective.
  • When offering Feedback for Improvement, tell, or ask the person whatcould have been said or done that would have been better and why it would have been better.
  • Always maintain the person’s self-esteem.
  • Don’t focus only on very good or very bad behaviour. Examine the average performance as well and provide feedback for effort, improvement, etc. Behavioural feedback provided when someone is making an effort will help them achieve the goal much faster than without it.

Try This At Home!

These interpersonal skills are effective with anyone, in any situation, and will have a significant positive impact on all your relationships.

Where to Begin?

Why not start immediately by taking a tip from author, Stephen Levine:





and why are you waiting?


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    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi Veronwe, thank you for the very specific feedback. I am pleased you have gained something from it. Regards, Russ

    • Voronwe profile image

      Voronwe 6 years ago

      Another informative hub! I really love the way you write on these topics of management and leadership...very straight-forward, concise and easy to follow. I've learnt a lot from your hubs...thanks very much.

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hi Golfcart, you're right, as humans we all crave acknowledgement, recognition, and want to feel important and if we remember this it will help when delivering feedback. And to reinforce your last point, one of the single most important things for a manager to do is to sit each of their employees down and give them a damn good listening to! Thanks for your comments. Russ

    • golfcart34 profile image

      Amanda Tallman 6 years ago from Vermont

      Fantastic hub! Knowing how to give feedback is not rocket science, yet so many managers seem to lack the skills needed to provide feedback effectively. When I give feedback I think of the other person as a human and I try to learn how they will receive feedback so I know how to provide it effectively. Sometimes you just need to listen to your employee to figure that out.