Positive feedback for a job well done is a powerful motivator. Then why are most managers so reluctant to tell people they did good work when that is the case?
Jess Lear, the psychologist that authored the famous book “I Ain’t Much, Baby – But I’m All I Got”, put it this way: “praise is like sunshine to the human spirit; we cannot grow without it. And yet, while most of us are only too ready to apply to others the cold wind of criticism, we are somehow reluctant to give our fellow man the warm sunshine of praise.”
There is a famous British story that relates to this topic. In the early 19thCentury, a young man in London aspired to be a writer. But everything seemed stacked against him. He was only able to attend four years of school. His father had been put in jail for not paying his debts. The family often had no food to eat. He finally got a job pasting labels on bottles in a rat infested warehouse. He slept in a dismal, cold attic room with two other boys who were from the slums of London. He had so little confidence in his ability to write that he snuck out at night and mailed his first manuscript so that nobody would laugh at him. Story after story was refused. Finally one was accepted and the editor went out of his way to praise the boy. This editor changed the boy’s life. Based on that encouragement, he continued to write and went on to become a very famous writer; Charles Dickens.
Back to the original question: why are we so reluctant to give positive feedback? Back in 1990, Bass and Stogdill published a “Handbook of Leadership” and briefly addressed this issue. They claimed it was typically due to one of the following reasons: Discomfort in discussing either positive or negative feedback by the boss, a lack of skill in assessing performance, doubts about the efficiency of positive reinforcement, poor performance appraisal practices in the organization, or time pressure.
In reality, it is probably a bit of all of those reasons, but what is important to remember is the power of the Pygmalion Effect, typically described as the phenomenon in which the greater the positive feedback for good performance, and the higher the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. The effect is named after the George Bernard Shaw play called Pygmalion.
In summary, strong leaders know that positive feedback for good performance pays big dividends!