Place yourself in the position of playing in, coaching or watching a sporting event. Let’s say you are watching a basketball game. Now imagine that for whatever reason you do not know the score. Think about how that would impact how you would feel. One reaction for most of us would be frustration. We would not know how to react to what each team was doing, nor would we know what they should be doing. We would not know who is winning.

As a dairy producer you keep production and financial records in order to know whether you are winning. Unfortunately, recently the financial records have been providing the wrong answer to the question. In reality though, knowing that we are losing is better than not knowing the answer to the question, “Am I winning?” We have the incentive and, hopefully, the opportunity to do what is necessary to change the answer to “yes.”

Now think about your employees. Can they answer the question, “Am I winning?” Do they know whether their performance is exceeding, meeting or below what is expected? Both research and my observations indicate that most employees do not know whether they are winning. In fact, the lack of information on their performance is probably the greatest source of frustration for employees.

So how, then, do you provide the answer to your employees? The answer is to provide a copious quantity of high-quality feedback.

Don Shula, the retired highly successful NFL football coach, in a book co-authored with Ken Blanchard (Everyone’s a Coach) states an obvious but not always-followed feedback axiom, “Good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.” We begin with positive feedback for good performance.


Good performance

As I approached the registration desk in the nearly vacant lobby of an economy motel, my hope was to complete a hassle-free registration and get to my room. Wow! Was I surprised when I was met by a friendly, helpful gentleman who also asked if I needed anything special or any local information. I thanked him and proceeded to my room with a little extra bounce in my step.

When I passed the registration desk on my way to grab a bite to eat, he called me by name. I stopped and thanked him for the unusually good service. Although a bit self-conscious with my compliment, he was obviously pleased. He had succeeded in providing excellent customer service, and we had made each other’s evening a little more pleasant.

The above illustrates the power of positive feedback as a morale builder and as a motivator. The challenge for each and every one of us is to develop a habit of providing positive feedback.

Let us first ask the question, why is positive feedback beneficial?

  • Positive feedback focuses the recipient on success. Good positive feedback serves as a reward to the recipient for an outcome or an action that contributed to business success. This reinforces the success-creating behavior and causes it to be repeated.
  • Positive feedback is motivating. “Feelings of personal accomplishment” and “recognition for achievement” are two of Frederick Herzberg’s motivators. Good positive feedback provides both.
  • Positive feedback builds confidence.
  • Positive feedback improves job satisfaction.

Now let’s ask the question, how can we feel more comfortable giving good positive feedback?

  • Become success-minded. You can provide positive feedback by continuously looking for actions and results that contribute to farm success and then always provide positive feedback. Look for successes!
  • Practice appreciative inquiry. Ask your employees what is going right and use their answers to provide good positive feedback.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more positive feedback you give, the better you will become. Practice with your family and your friends – they will love it.

The outcome we are seeking is that providing large quantities of high-quality, positive feedback becomes a habit.

Unacceptable performance or behavior

I find the traditional view of feedback as positive or negative to be inadequate. The problem is that when behavior is inappropriate or performance unacceptable, there are two very different causes – the situation or the person’s behavior. The two causes require very different feedback; thus the need for three types of feedback – positive, redirection or negative.

It is crucial to distinguish between redirection and negative feedback when performance or behavioral expectations are not met. The key to great feedback is providing feedback that is appropriate to the performance. Appropriate means the feedback must correctly communicate the supervisor’s assessment of the employee’s performance. It is difficult to provide the appropriate feedback when expectations are not met or when performance is “unsuccessful.” A critical choice between redirection and negative feedback must be made.

Consider the following two scenarios where an employee failed to correctly complete a checklist of actions in the expected time:

  1. Several of the tasks on the list are relatively new to the employee and several unusual situations were present today. As far as you can tell, the employee made every effort to succeed.
  2. The employee is experienced in all of the actions on the list, and no unusual situations were present.

Now let us examine the two scenarios for the reason for the “unsuccessful” performance. In scenario one, the failure to complete the list can be explained by the situation – the context of the performance. The employee was not yet sufficiently skilled at some of the tasks, and there were some unusual circumstances. In scenario two, the failure to complete the list cannot be explained by the situation. The failure to complete the list can only be explained by the personal characteristics of the employee. He or she did not have sufficient motivation to complete the task or he or she did not concentrate sufficiently to complete the actions on time.

In the first scenario, we determine that the failure to perform was caused by the situation or the context of the performance. We therefore choose a redirection feedback. With redirection feedback, we are communicating several things. First, that the performance, in this case the failure to complete the checklist, is not acceptable. Second, that he or she is not at fault. It is crucial that the employee not feel that he or she is being punished. You are working with them to enable them to attain the “successful” performance. Finally, changes are required in the situation to enable “successful” performance. Training and coaching is usually required. Sometimes the definition of “successful” performance must be adjusted, as it was not attainable. In this case the employee would be trained and coached to master the required skills and learn approaches to handle the unusual situations.

The second scenario, where we have concluded that the situation cannot explain the failure, calls for a very different response. Here we have determined that the failure to perform is explained by the employee’s personal characteristics – commitment, motivation, concentration, effort level. We now must use a negative feedback. In this case the negative feedback, such as the absence of positive feedback, reminder, reprimand or punishment, must produce sufficient “pain” to cause a change in behavior that results in “successful” performance.

The challenge of any choice, in this case redirection or negative, is that the wrong choice can be made. In this case, the wrong choice of providing negative feedback when redirection is the right choice, is both common and potentially disastrous.

Think of a recent example when someone blamed you personally (provided negative feedback) when you felt the culprit was the situation or context (should have received redirection feedback). How did you feel? You were likely upset, frustrated or mad. Why does this scenario evoke such a strong reaction? The answer is that we believe we have been treated unfairly. Anytime feelings of unfairness appear, the relationship is damaged.

Feedback summary

  1. Copious quantities of high-quality feedback lets employees know whether they are “winning.”
  2. Good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.
  3. For inadequate performance or inappropriate behavior, the choice between redirection and negative feedback is the key. PD
Robert A. Milligan