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THE QUESTION

Over the years, I have had a couple of bosses who delivered positive feedback in a whisper. I mean that literally. They give praise, but they whisper their comments as if they're sharing a deep secret. The first time it happened, I just chalked it up to odd team dynamics or a personality quirk. But since then, I have taken a job in another sector and found a position that is a great fit, closely matching my skills. My new boss and I recently sat down to review my accomplishments and when he gave the appropriate kudos, I was again treated to the "whisper" technique. As soon as the positive feedback started, his body language changed, he lost eye contact, and I had to strain to hear what he was saying.

In both cases, any critical feedback was delivered with solid eye contact and a clear voice. What's the deal? Do some bosses feel that positive feedback is taking away their authority? Are some people just more comfortable giving negative feedback?

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THE FIRST ANSWER

Greg Chung-Yan

Associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology, University of Windsor

I am not aware of "whisper feedback" being a management technique. If anything, this runs counter to the recommended ways feedback should be conveyed. Positive feedback should be delivered genuinely and confidently, otherwise the recipient won't take it seriously. It's also good for other employees to see and hear the type of behaviour bosses value.

It's more likely that your bosses are trying out a new skill. Check to see whether they had recently taken a management training seminar on performance management. As with any new skill, the first few times you try it, you may not do it well. The fear of looking foolish and incompetent tends to make people act hesitantly and sheepish. Unfortunately, acting hesitantly and sheepish – especially when one is in a leadership role – often renders new managerial skills ineffective.

In general, managers and supervisors do not give feedback regularly or often enough to employees. When they do, it's usually when an employee has done something wrong. Simply put, your bosses deliver negative feedback confidently because they're used to it; they're comfortable doing that.

Assuming your bosses are trying to improve their feedback skills, you should encourage them and act appreciative. If you reinforce their new behaviour with a positive reaction, they are more likely to continue. Employees are not the only ones who benefit from positive feedback.

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THE SECOND ANSWER

Billy Anderson

Founder, Made You Think Coaching, Toronto

Congratulations! Some people never get positive feedback, so even a whisper is a good thing.

Many people believe that giving negative feedback makes them look intelligent. When we criticize, we are often implying that we know better. That makes us feel smart. We like that. Conversely, many feel that giving positive feedback makes them look less intelligent, or like a touchy-feely hippy. "Am I implying they know more than I do? Shouldn't I say something negative to show I'm the boss and I deserve the fancier title and more impressive paycheque?"

Many leaders would rather staple their face to their desk rather than imply that they have feelings. Some men think it makes them look weak, while some women are scared to look like a softy who can't compete in a male-dominated workplace.

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Eye contact, meanwhile, relates to a person's level of confidence. A lack of it can result from shyness, shame, embarrassment, sadness, lying or insecurity. The more eye contact we make, the more we're putting ourselves out there for the world to see our true selves.

Positive feedback encourages people to use their strengths and take more risks. It builds trust and helps to maximize a team's talents. So savour your positive feedback, no matter how you get it.

Are you facing a burning issue at work? Need help navigating that minefield? Let our Nine To Five experts help solve your dilemma. E-mail your questions to ninetofive@globeandmail.com. Confidentiality ensured. Weigh in with your view at tgam.ca/careers. Check out past columns here.

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