In earlier discussions, we’ve looked at the importance of interpersonal feedback.  We’ve learned that there are four types of feedback: supportive, corrective, insignificant and abusive. We learned that the feedback we receive goes into our “Feedback Bucket,” but it leaks out over time for a variety of reasons.  As a result, most of us need constant nourishing of our bucket to prevent it from draining dry.

This time we’ll look at supportive feedback, arguably the most important of the four types. But unfortunately, even those persons who think they know how to deliver supportive feedback oftentimes do so ineffectively.

Believe it or not, one of the best ways to understand supportive feedback is to visit one of the Sea World marine parks watching the trainers reinforce animal behavior!  What the trainers do at Sea World isn’t a secret.  In their shows they openly explain how positive reinforcement is used to change and model animal behavior.

One of the techniques the trainers use involves a long pole with a white pad on one end called a target.  I’ve used a miniature version of the target as a demonstration in my workshops. First, I find a participant who loves Snickers & candy bars.  I begin by touching the padded end of the target to the nose of my subject and then offering candy as a reward.  This process is repeated several times until the subject gets the connection that touching the nose equals a desired reward.

Then I move the target close to the subject’s nose, but not touching it. In order to get the candy the subject must lean forward the final few inches. This process is repeated as I gradually increase the distance. To complete the demonstration, I hold the target above the person’s head, which requires the person to stand on a chair in order to get the reward. It’s at that point that I ask, “Now do you understand how Sea World can get Shamu to jump over twenty feet out of the water and splash on all the human fools who sit in the “Splash Zone.”

So what does Shamu have to do with giving supportive feedback? Consider a clerk who for several years has covered an important afternoon and evening shift several days each week. Her busy schedule is a difficult balancing act as a part-time student, mother, and clerk, but she does well in all three areas.  In the office, she has been cooperative, responsible and dependable. She could even be on a short-list for advancement if the circumstances warranted it.

Because of her ability and experience, she appears to need minimal supervision. As a result, over time the manager and other key members of management systematically ignore her. After all, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And don’t forget that a typical manager is forced to spend 80 percent of his or her time with 20 percent of the employees: the ones who create the problems. The clerk is certainly not in the 20 percent, so if there is an employee who can be ignored, she must be the one.

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Don’t forget, this clerk has a feedback bucket—just like everyone else. She needs daily deposits of feedback-just like everyone else. And if she doesn’t get enough feedback, and her bucket drains dry, what do you think will happen to her being cooperative, responsible and dependable? Actually, this is a classic story of why good employees can lose their effectiveness. The interesting thing is that a person whose bucket drains dry and then whose job performance erodes may not even be aware of what happened or why it happened. All the clerk may be able to relate in all exit interview is that she has become bored with the job and the challenge and excitement are gone. This is a critical principle of managing others: consistent superior performance over time is directly related to the employee receiving enough appropriate feedback to keep the bucket from draining dry.

So what could the manager do to make a substantial deposit of feedback in the clerk’s bucket? What if the manager said to her, “Mary, I really appreciate what you were able to get accomplished yesterday.”  You worked really well and I especially like that you cleaned up the files.  As a result, we had a great head start on the invoices. I know how hectic the afternoon shift can be but you have a knack of making things happen. I want you to know how happy I am with what you did. You are an important part of our team. Thanks.”

It’s difficult to say how often Mary might need a substantial deposit of feedback like this one, but it needs to be on a frequency that her bucket can’t drain dry. And it needs to be specifically focused on her performance that contributes to departmental excellence. The manager must be aware of Mary’s job performance and then take the time to give her appropriate feedback.

The feedback the manager gave Mary follows a specific formula. Notice that it wasn’t atta boy, or atta girl, or way to go, or nice going, or keep it up, or looking good. All of those comments are okay, and people can feel better after hearing them. But they lack the power we oftentimes need to get the reaction we want, Atta boys and atta girls are insignificant feedback, because they lack the power of real supportive feedback.

The formula to deliver supportive feedback in the most powerful way is

1. Describe the specific behavior.

2. Describe the positive consequences of the behavior.

3. Describe how you feel about the behavior.

4. Describe why you feel that way.

First, the manager described specifically what Mary did, in other words her behaviors.  Next, he explained the positive consequences of those behaviors. Then he told her how he feels about what she did. And finally, he explained why he feels the way he does. Each of the four steps is designed to focus the supportive feedback in a way to maximize its effect. An atta boy is less effective than this formula because it is so non-specific and unfocused.  The recipient of an atta boy may not be able to connect the feedback with his or her behavior. The reason this formula works so well is that it supports the specific behavior that you want repeated, and it does so in a very powerful way. It is in this way that the supportive feedback formula is similar to the method used by Sea World to reinforce behaviors with the animals.

There are two directions you can take when giving supportive feedback. You can reinforce who the person is, inside, or you can reinforce a behavior the person does that you would like repeated.  While both of these reinforcements are good and appropriate, knowing when to use each type, and how much of it to do can be confusing.  It can take some time and practice in reading people to be able to discern how much reinforcement of a behavior is needed as compared to reinforcing the good nature of that person. Perhaps the reason it can be confusing is that both of these reinforcements are necessary, most especially to your children. The challenge is when to use each type. Actually, the two techniques are related. So whether you reinforce the person, or the behavior, you haven’t wasted your time. Good timings frequently happen as a result of either type of supportive feedback.

Because of the pressure to make a profit, too many managers have forgotten the importance of helping employees reduce or eliminate ineffective behaviors. One of the most effective ways I know of eliminating ineffective behaviors from employees is to fill their feedback buckets with supportive feedback. When your supportive feedback fills someone’s bucket, and makes them feel good inside, there is a much better chance that that person will act effectively and cause fewer problems in the future, In other words, a little investment of your time today will likely bring fewer problems tomorrow.

Sometimes, with some people, supportive feedback doesn’t work, In spite of your best efforts, whether you use the power formula or not, some people won’t react positively to supportive feedback. What do you do then? Is there a formula for those situations? We’ll look at those issues in the future.

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About the Author
Richard Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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