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Say the word "feedback" and most people assume that it is about negative behaviour – something that needs to be corrected.

Consultants Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman have pointed out that most leaders "vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement." Research shows positive feedback increases employees' sense that they're learning and growing at their jobs, makes them feel valued, and leads to increased confidence and competence.

Mr. Zenger told Leah Fessler of Quartz that managers shy away from giving positive feedback because they fear it will create close relationships with employees they may need to fire in the future. Or it may be viewed as meaningless bafflegab designed to win favour.

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The formula to apply for positive feedback is to be specific, discuss the impact of the other person's behaviour and show your gratitude. General compliments tend not to be long-lasting. Mr. Zenger recommends singling out the specific behaviour or trait you observed and when you observed it. Always end with "thank you."

Make sure to communicate why you're praising someone – how the individual's behaviour positively impacts the performance of the organization or team. That moves it from the individual to the collective. "It's always nice to be told you're talented. But for the purposes of getting good work done, you're far more likely to be motivated by knowing that because you buckled down and met a tough deadline, you saved the company from losing a big client," Ms. Fessler reports.

Psychologist Markus van Alphen notes on the Lead Change blog that, at its core, feedback is about behaviour that can be modified. "It is different from criticism, in that the person receiving the feedback is actually able to do something with it. Feedback in its simplest form is nothing other than giving someone a tip, a suggestion how to handle something differently. In its most complicated form, it is an observation on the effects of certain behaviour and a suggestion as to what alternative behaviour would be preferred," he observes.

His guidelines for providing feedback:

  • Provide it face-to-face, alone: Don’t give it publicly, especially when unsolicited. Usually a simple invitation. like “Do you have a minute for me?”, will suffice.
  • Introduce the goal: Without beating around the bush, briefly state the purpose of the conversation. For example: “I would like to speak with you about something I have noticed.” Being direct and transparent conveys you are forthcoming and genuine. “Suppress the desire to begin with something positive or a compliment, as the receiver will already anticipate what is about to happen. They are waiting for the ‘but…’ and will interpret the compliment as a trick. It isn’t a compliment at all …. rather a devious way to introduce something negative,” he says.
  • Keep it to recent behaviour: If the action being referenced is too long in the past, the person may not even remember. If you tackle something recent but drag in more ancient events, you will end up in a discussion that might miss the key point. Let bygones be bygones.
  • Be concrete: You need to spell out clearly the behaviour that needs to be altered.
  • State the impact on you in the I-form: It is difficult to question another’s feelings, so this personal approach also helps avoid a meaningless discussion. If you say something makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s hard for the other person to disagree. Even as a leader, with behaviour not directed against you, try this tactic. Saying “I feel very uncomfortable when clients are treated disrespectfully” is more effective than referring to the effect of the behaviour on others.
  • Offer alternatives: If this is about changing behaviour, indicate what you would prefer to see.
  • Keep it short and sweet: “Your message and your wish come across strongest when you don’t beat about the bush but stick to the core issue,” he advises.
  • Ask for willingness to change: The other person’s willingness to change behaviour increases when you explicitly ask: “Would you do that for me?” They will find it difficult to turn down a request for help and also can’t shrug off the conversation as being just a passing comment.
  • Listen to the reaction. “The last step is to be quiet, listen to any reaction the other may give, and if at all possible leave the choice up to them. When people are given the opportunity to make their own decisions, they feel in control, that their opinion counts and that they are taken seriously. By formulating feedback as a choice rather than a demand, you give them the power to act as capable, independent individuals. A self-made choice is far more likely to lead to them to actually follow through on that choice,” he concludes.

Emotional intelligence and the top executive

We are all aware of the importance of managing emotions to achieve success. But less attention is paid to the fact that the higher you look in an organization, the lower the emotional intelligence (EQ) scores.

The scores are highest at the supervisor and middle-manager level. Individual contributors on the front line tend to have lower scores, which fits with the theory that emotional intelligence is linked to success. The surprising result, according to research by psychologist Travis Bradberry and his TalentSmart consultancy, is that scores are successively lower at each ring of organizational hierarchy above middle management, .

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However, the top performers at each level are those with the highest EQ scores. "Even though CEOs have the lowest EQ scores in the workplace, the best-performing CEOs are those with the highest EQs. You might get promoted with a low EQ, but you won't outshine your high-EQ competition in your new role," he writes on LinkedIn.

Why do people with poor EQ get promoted? He points to the fact that the higher you rise above middle management, the more companies focus on metrics in their hiring and promotion decisions. He concedes that short-term, bottom-line indicators are important, but argues it's short-sighted to make someone a senior leader because of recent monetary achievements. As well, promotions can come because of knowledge and tenure, rather than skill in inspiring others.

Worse, once leaders get promoted, the environment they enter tends to erode their emotional intelligence. They spend less time in meaningful interactions with their staff than before. The metrics become even more important and they can lose sight of the emotional side.

"Whether you're a leader now or may become one in the future, you don't have to succumb to this trend. Your emotional intelligence is completely under your control. Work on your EQ and it will boost your performance now. Your effort can also ensure that you don't experience declines as you climb the corporate ladder. Even if your employer promotes you for the wrong reasons, you'll still outperform your contemporaries," he says.

Quick hits

  • Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon’s web services operation, says the reason for the company’s success is that it says “yes” more than almost any other company on the planet. Managers at other large companies enter meetings, he feels, looking for ways to say no, while Amazon execs look for ways to say yes.
  • When recruiting, be brutally honest with candidates, sharing the frustrations, challenges and demands of the job without sugar-coating, says Carmen Di Rito, co-founder of LifeCo UnLtd., which supports social entrepreneurs.
  • Research shows that too much focus on task completion leads to employees choosing the eaiest ones. Although that improves task performance in the short run, it hurts performance – as measured by speed and revenue – in the long term. Be aware of what researchers label “task completion bias” as you decide what to do next.
  • Team alignment is for the birds, says consultant Jesse Lyn Stoner. When the focus is on staying in formation with little tolerance for differences, creativity is not considered desirable. Followers depend on leaders to make decisions, unwilling to act independently or get out of line. Instead of aligning your team, provide a compelling vision and let them soar.
  • You can stop Siri or notifications from distracting you by turning your iOS device display-side down on the table, tech writer Johnny Evans says.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

Gordon Moore’s idea was that the power of the microprocessor would double every two years Special to Globe and Mail Update

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