As a current or future leader, it is imperative that you understand how to promote a culture of sharing feedback in order to be part of a successful business. In this article, I will give my recommendations on how to embody the behaviors you wish to see in others, and how to influence your team to embody these behaviors themselves.
Knowledge workers, for example, software engineers, respond more positively to messages from their peers than to messages from their bosses. If your boss tells you that you’re not putting in the necessary effort, you might think she is pushing to get the most out of you. If your teammate tells you the same thing, you might feel a sense of guilt and failure to live up to commitments. The same goes for a positive message. You may feel that your boss is just kissing your butt to keep you working hard, but if your teammate shows their appreciation, you may feel delighted and you may bring renewed vigor to your work.
First, we’ll cover advice on how to embody behaviors that will express to your team that providing positive feedback is desirable and necessary. Then we’ll address how to tactically institutionalize the sharing of positive feedback among your employees.
Promoting Positive Feedback through your Behavior
An organization’s leadership team must embody the behaviors it wishes to promote. In my experience, a leader embodying the following behaviors will result in your team feeling empowered to give feedback themselves.
Keep your Eyes Peeled
To give positive feedback, you must have observed something positive. You should spend time near your team, randomly review some code, check out a QA plan, view a design specification, or read a product document. The quality of the work of your team reflects on you, so you should be doing some of this already for the sake of self-preservation.
Since you can’t see everything, make it a common practice to ask managers of other teams if they have observed anything deserving of praise. This is not only a great way to get feedback, but to lead your management team peers by example.
Present Yourself as a Source of Meaningful Feedback
Messages are more effective coming from a confident, engaged person. Before speaking take a moment to make sure your back and neck are straight, that you are smiling, and that you are prepared to project your voice. As you speak, do so loudly and make eye contact with all members of the group.
Doing these simple things will express to your audience that you are engaged and acting with authenticity.
Recognize People Publicly
Make a commitment to yourself and peers to publicly share one piece of positive feedback every week, or better yet every day. Giving praise in public can be uncomfortable. When I was getting started, I felt like I was being judged for being cheesy or ingratiating myself through flattery. If you happen to feel this way, it doesn’t matter. Who cares if they judge you? They’ll get over it the day they’ve earned some of your praise.
Traditionally, Western work culture discourages positive displays of emotion. It is my belief that deep down we all want to work in a place where we can be open and emotionally expressive. It is up to you to show your team that it’s not only okay, but preferred, to express the positive things you feel about your peers, and to do so in front of everyone.
“Good job,” “you’re doing great,” and “there is nothing you could do better” are low-value statements. Does the person giving me praise even know what I do!?
To give meaningful praise, it must be about a specific action or outcome where the person bears some responsibility. Try something like these:
“Julie, thank you for improving the performance of our longest running query. The reported issues for search have dropped from 5 daily to 0 in the last two weeks.”
“I want you all to give a round of applause to Gary. He’s an engineer, but he joined a sales meetup for fun. It turns out he’s pretty good at business development because one of the CEOs he met just scheduled a meeting with us!”
“Few peers have driven me to succeed the way Jamie has. It’s amazing how her mind is always on the most important thing that will bring us closer to our goal.”
Your employees will go home and tell the people they love, “remember that thing that was so hard, well my boss told my whole department that we only could have done it because of my special ability!” There is incredible power in being specific, but it won’t be easy. Make sure and write down all the cool stuff your teams and people do.
When Praised, Deflect Credit to Others
When you lead people, leaders above you will be aware if you are meeting the goals you’ve committed to (or they have committed you to). You will certainly hear about problems, and if you’re at a great company, you will be praised.
In this moment your mindset should be that you are the least responsible person for the success of your team.
You didn’t really do any of the important work. Sure you planned meetings and steered conversations, but you didn’t type a script, design a comp, or QA a feature. Give credit to those people. Even if you did pitch in a little bit, who cares?
When your boss, peer, or report praises you, immediately list the specific things your teammates did to accomplish the goal. Go a step further and say you were simply fortunate to be involved.
Now you are equipped to set an example for how to give positive feedback. That is the fundamental first step to transforming your culture. In the following section, we will examine intentionally influencing the culture of your department.
Fostering Recognition within your Teams
A leadership team setting an example is the most powerful form of influence available. That’s what we’ve set you up for, but how do you get your people to recognize one another? Try some of the following.
Intentionally Teach Them
In 1-on-1s or in a large group setting, share these ideas with your employees and peers. Give them good examples of what effective praise looks like, teach them to present themselves professionally, and ask them to look for people going above and beyond.
Ask your Reports for Help
Ask each of your direct reports to commit to publicly giving one piece of positive feedback every week. If they commit to it, check in with them each week and ask what the feedback was.
As an aside, asking directs for help is a technique I use to enact all types of organizational change. I simply state to my direct that I need a hand and explain why it will help them and the company. Hopefully, my reasoning is sound and I get some buy-in. If the person isn’t bought in, there’s no reasonable expectation that they will agree to the favor or follow through if they did.
Create a Department-Wide Recognition Program
By now you are exhausted by all of this new responsibility. I know, it’s hard to add a new set of tasks to your workday. What if you (partially) automated a solution, what would it look like? We came up with a way to institutionalize the sharing of positive feedback at SalesLoft.
The Highest Five!
Every two weeks an employee is recognized by their peers for having the greatest effect on our company’s success. How we choose the winner is the coolest part.
We created a slack channel called #the-highest-five. Anyone in the Product & Development Organization can give a ‘High Five’ to their peer by typing a description of what they did to earn the honor. Every two weeks, the previous winner chooses the nomination they judge to be most deserving. This person earns The Highest Five and can look forward to choosing the next winner. There is a pretty cool prize selection too.
The program is successful and has expanded. We now include an activity where all the members of the team, about 80 of us, share our personal highlight from the last couple weeks. You know what happens there? Lots of people call out another person’s feats as their own personal highlight.
Take a look at some of the High Fives that have been posted lately:
Pretty simple stuff, right? If you want to bring more positivity and recognition to your team, remember this: Embodying a new behavior is not easy and you will need to remind yourself to act. Put an appointment on your calendar for this afternoon to share positive feedback with somebody, keep a journal of your peers and directs and the things they’ve done to impress you, and put yourself out there and compliment how quickly an engineer fixed a bug.
The point I’m trying to make is that you are in control of making this change, you don’t even have to be a manager, though it certainly helps. Just start and people are going to want to be a part of it. I’m impressed that you’ve finished this article!
Joe Essey is an engineering manager leading our performance and email workflow teams. When he’s not leading this amazing teams of engineers, designers and product owners, he’s exercising his creative muscle producing electronic music.