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July 24th, 2011 | Posted by josantamaria in Articles

I’m a newly promoted supervisor with seven people reporting to me. I have no problem with my position description.  There is one thing, however, that I find difficult to do.  This is giving feedback to my direct reports. I find it difficult even to give a deserved praise.  I feel strange and uncomfortable praising a person.  I’ve tried it but I ended up regretting my attempts.    I agonize about giving a deserved criticism.  I know both of them are important to improve performance but I find it difficult to express in words what I think and feel.  Can you give me some useful tips that will work.

                                                                                    Mr. Fearful of Giving Feedback


You’re not the only supervisor who finds difficulty in giving feedback, both positive and negative.  In my 27 years of conducting supervisory and management development programs, most participants acknowledge frequently this area as their weakness and area for growth.  Lack of recognition is an area most often complained about by subordinates, of all levels, of their superiors, of all levels.  This can be seen in 360o feedback results in which the giving of recognition is an area of great need.

Even if you didn’t mention it in your email, I can surmise that you have not received a sufficient amount of positive feedback yourself, which is why you find it difficult to give what you don’t have.  Dr. Virginia Satyr, a famous psychologist, used the term “daily stroke quota” to refer to the minimum amount of affirmation—verbal and non-verbal, that we need to feel good about ourselves and to feel good about others.  When a person does not regularly get his “daily stroke quota,” his personality changes.  He withdraws from the people who frustrate him, or engages in aggressive behaviors to fill up his attention deficit.

Benefits of Feedback: Everyone needs stroking, affirmation, pats on the back.  The one who protests that he doesn’t need positive feedback is one who is fearful of not getting it.  His protestation becomes a defense mechanism.  “I don’t need what I don’t/can’t get,” is the actual message.

Our feedback to another person enables them to see themselves as we see them, thus expanding their self-awareness.  It enables the person to know how their behavior/performance affects us.  It provides them the opportunity to receive a deserved praise or a needed correction.  Addressing the area of correction provides the impetus for growth and development.

Feedback can be verbal or non-verbal.  Verbal takes the form of words of praise, compliment or affirmation. Non-verbal can be in the form of listening attentively to understand, nods of approval, smiling, giving a pat on the back, acknowledging an employee’s ideas and suggestions, etc.  Combining both the verbal and the non-verbal is a powerful tool that boosts one’s morale, self-esteem and productivity.

Positive feedback is likened to psychological oxygen that makes a person “grow, glow and go.”   It motivates the receiver to continue what he/she is doing, and maintains and improves productive behaviors.  Receiving sincere positive feedback and other forms of recognition are one of the factors that contribute to an employee’s work engagement and retention.  This is one of the findings of the Hewitt Associates research on Best Employers in Asia in 2004.  Among corporations in the Philippines studied by Hewitt Associates, employees ranked recognition as the # 1 driver of work engagement followed by pay, opportunities for advancement and HR practices beneficial to employees.  Highly engaged employees were found to be those who stay long and build their careers in the company, who deliver consistently high performance and say positive things about the company to customers and to the public.

Feedback vs. Reinforcement.   Feedback can be given on the being and doing of a person. It can refer to the qualities of a person or to the behaviors of a person that one likes.  On the other hand, reinforcement is a kind of feedback that is focused on the behavior of the person, i.e., his doing.   We give positive reinforcement to the positive behavior of a person and this makes him more likely to repeat the same positive behaviors.  We give negative reinforcement to the negative behavior of a person and this makes him less likely to repeat the same negative behaviors.

At times, however, we may give positive reinforcement to a negative behavior making it more likely for the person to repeat the negative behavior.  An example:  we start a meeting at 9:15 a.m. because we wait for the latecomers to arrive when everyone concerned had agreed to the schedule of 8:30 a.m.  We thus delivered a positive reinforcement to the latecoming behaviors and negative reinforcement to the positive behaviors of those who came early.   You can be sure that if you do this often, those who came early will come late at the succeeding meetings.

What Do We Give Positive Reinforcement To?  There are two things that a leader can give positive reinforcement to:  positive behaviors and the results of these positive behaviors.

When an employee is new to the job, needs to learn the tasks, and needs self-confidence to do them, the leader observes closely how he performs a task and notes the positive behaviors that the employee displays. An example of this:   a new Sales Rep has asked the right kind of questions and was able to handle the customer’s objection.  The Supervisor tells him, after the sales call, and as soon as possible when they are alone:   “Roy, I like the way you handled Mr. Santos’ objections. You made good use of probing to extract information from him on his reason for refusing to stock up on our new product. You were able to show the advantage of having stocks available to avoid bouncing prescriptions and lost sale.  That was really well done, Roy!”  Say this while smiling at him and nodding your head in approval.

The Supervisor also gives positive reinforcement when outside conditions prevent, for example, the Sales Rep from attaining his quota, even though he is making regular quality calls.

For example:  A Sales Rep regularly calls on his drugstore outlets and he is well liked by drugstore owners.  Unfortunately, however, inspite of his efforts, his sales is low because of low demand for the products, and the company has tightened its credit terms.   In this situation, the Sales Supervisor tells his Sales Rep: “Sammy, I noticed that your call frequency is high and that you’re calling on four potential outlets regularly. But overall sales in your territory is low.  I know that it’s sometimes difficult to stay motivated during tough situations like this when demand has slowed down due to the prevalence of cheap generic substitutes, and our company is also implementing strictly our credit policies.  But you’re doing a very good job, Sammy.  Keep up the good work.  As soon as things stabilize, I’m sure you’ll reap the benefits of all the good work you’re doing now to build and maintain good relations with your customers.”  If the Sales Supervisor has not said this to Sammy, think of how demoralized and demotivated Sammy would be.  The supervisor recognized two positive behaviors of Sammy e.g., regular calls on potential outlets, and building and maintaining good relations with customers.

Another situation when positive reinforcement is given to positive behaviors is when there is a long time lag between the desired behavior and the desired results. An example is when a Sales Rep is calling on a high-potential account that is difficult to crack.  The Sales Supervisor can give a sincere encouragement by telling his Sales Rep:  “Roy, I know you haven’t opened the ACES account yet, but the tenacity and persistence you’re showing will pay off, not only on this account, but on others as well.”  The supervisor is giving recognition to the sales rep’s persistence and tenacity, which are winning qualities of a sales rep.

In each of these situations, a specific behavior or set of behaviors is reinforced.  This increases the probability that these behaviors will continue, even though the individual has not yet experienced the satisfaction of seeing his particular task completed or his goal accomplished. This situation is also known as shaping behavior.

On the other hand, the Sales Supervisor reinforces results when everything is running smoothly. As an example:  A Sales Rep has been doing a good job of maintaining his quota. The Sales Supervisor can tell him “Mike, I see that you are able to maintain and even exceed your quota.        Keep up the good work. I appreciate all your efforts to achieve your targets consistently. I’m very proud of you.” The supervisor also reinforces consistent improvement in meeting of targets.  As an example, he tells his Sales Rep: “Gloria, your territory has been improving every month for the last four months.  Keep calling on your Key Accounts and doing regular stock checks and merchandising, as well as PR activities to further improve your sales.”

In each of these situations, the individual had done the right things (engaged in the right behaviors) and obtained the desired results.  The emphasis in reinforcement is thus placed upon those results.  Chances are that the recipient of the reinforcement probably will continue to practice those behaviors that led to positive results.  Quite often the performance of a high performer dives down because of lack of positive feedback.

When you give a sincere positive feedback to your subordinate, watch the physical change in his face;  watch his smile, although it may be an embarrassed smile very common among those who are not used to receive compliments, and the glow on his face.  Observe the improvements in his performance.  Very often he does not only repeat the positive behavior; the positive feedback affects other aspects of his performance as well.  An example of this :  when a supervisor gives a positive feedback to his employee for the latter’s initiative in his customer retention campaign, observe how his attendance and punctuality improve as well.  This is known as the ripple effect.

Effect of Silence.  Some supervisors find it difficult to give a deserved positive reinforcement or a negative reinforcement directly to the person.

The common reaction to a difficult situation is withdrawal; in this case, withdrawal takes the form of silence.  What does silence on the part of the boss convey or communicate to his employee?  If the subordinate does a positive behavior or accomplishes something, and the boss says nothing about it, the positive behavior goes through a process of extinction until it disappears.  If the subordinate does a negative behavior, such as coming one hour late for work, or making an incorrect but deliberate entry in his/her expense report, etc. and the boss says nothing about it, silence is a positive reinforcement to the negative behavior.  You can be sure that the negative behavior will be repeated again and again until it becomes a habit.  This is how we contribute to the development of bad habits and vices of others.  We say nothing when they do it, making them feel we approve of it.

Quite often, we praise an employee to another employee, or complain about our employee to another employee rather than direct the feedback to the employee concerned.  Performance evaluation could be an occasion to give effective feedback on performance.  Unfortunately, performance appraisal is usually done hurriedly, doing away with the one-on-one feedback session that could have been helpful in strengthening relationship.

Some Guidelines In Giving Negative Feedback.  The giving of both positive and negative feedback is a very useful tool in performance management and in coaching. A leader  can not be effective without the use of feedback skills.

Negative feedback, if done and given correctly, and immediately, corrects negative behaviors and eliminates unproductive behaviors.   Here are some useful guidelines in giving negative feedback.

  1. Describe the specific behavior or incident.  A basic formula for feedback giving uses the I-message i.e., I ( I speak for myself) + feeling (what I feel) + your behavior + consequence.  Ex:  “I am very disappointed that for the third time this month, you submitted your report 1-2 days late.  I had spoken to you about this matter twice already and the consequence of late submission of this report to me and to the person who needs my report.”
  2.   Choose an appropriate time and a private place when nobody can see or hear you when you give negative feedback. Do this one-on-one.
  3. 3.     Describe the context. Ex: “I’d like to talk to you about what happened in our meeting this morning.”
  4. 4.     Speak for yourself, not for others.  Describe your reactions and reasons. Ex:  “I was distracted by your side conversations with Dave and couldn’t follow what others were saying.”
  5. 5.     Ask for the change you like to see.  Ex: “You often have good points to make and I would prefer it if you would share them with the whole group rather than talk about it with another person.”
    1.   Allow or give time for the other person to respond.  Wait in silence as you look at the person.

Some Don’ts in Giving Negative Feedback:

  1. Don’t use labels or judgments. Such as “When you are irresponsible”, or “It’s obvious you’re not a team player because you don’t participate during our meetings.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate.  Ex: Instead of, “You build a wall around yourself and don’t work as a team player,” say “When you don’t speak up.  I’m not sure what you’re thinking about.
  3. After giving a negative feedback, communicate your expectation of the person to change.  When he acknowledges his mistake and apologizes, never say “OK lang” because this negates your message.

Use High Quality Assertive Communication.  By this is meant that our non-verbal (facial expression, tone of voice and body language) must be consistent with the content of our message.

When giving positive feedback, face the person, smile and the tone of our voice conveys happiness.  When giving negative feedback, our face and tone of voice must convey seriousness. Do not smile when giving negative feedback. Never apologize for giving negative feedback.  Example:  “I’m sorry that I have to tell you this.” This confuses the employee.

And never use your cellphone while giving feedback.  This violates high quality assertiveness, does not show respect for the other person and does not speak well of you.

In conclusion:  Forgetting to stroke, to affirm, to pat a person’s back when this is deserved, is a sin of omission.  How many persons in the workplace go through their worklife feeling unloved and unappreciated.  They don’t grow fast enough or worse, not all, because of the lack of impetus to growth which a positive feedback gives.

You asked me to give you “some useful tips that will work.”   These tips that I have shared with you will only work if you use them with an open mind i.e., you have a positive attitude about their usefulness.  Do not immediately say “It’s difficult” without trying with the attitude that they will work.  If you won’t start doing it now, when will you ever do it?  Practice giving feedback by:

  1. writing down a positive feedback script and a negative feedback script for each of your subordinates.
  2. imagining yourself talking to each one in a high quality assertive way

Practicing by yourself will remove the discomfort you feel when you actually deliver it.

How About You?  I started my advice with a diagnosis that perhaps you don’t get your daily stroke quota which is why you find it difficult to affirm another person even if deserved.  Here are some positive and proactive ways you can do to fill your daily quota:

  1. Do a great job. Exceed expectations
  2. Help people do their work better through coaching.
  3. 3.      If they still don’t affirm you, ask them.  “How did you find my work?”  “How did you like my report?”  “How did you find my presentation?” etc.
  4. If still you don’t get the affirmation you deserve, “shake the dust off your feet”, as Jesus advised His apostles on mission.  This means “Don’t bother about them.”
  5. Continue to be good, to do good, to feel good. This is your own built-in positive reinforcement.


God bless you.



Josie O. Santamaria

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