Here’s why you need to separate praise from feedback

As a foodie, I love all kinds of mashups. From bacon apple pie to mac-and=cheese quesadillas it’s stimulating to creatively pair ingredients in unexpected ways. But when it comes to leadership communication, combining certain types of information within the same conversation is a recipe for disaster.

To illustrate, let’s use a fictitious member of your team, “Jim,” as an example. Suppose that Jim works remotely, and you have a video call with him this afternoon to go through a few items. You only have 30 minutes to meet, so you decide to economize and tell him several things within the same conversation.

As you’re talking, you give him some praise about a recent project, as well as some directive feedback. “Hey, Jim, thanks for staying late and pulling all the metrics for the Carson account ... oh and that reminds me, speaking of metrics, you need to be more clear with Accounting on the month-end reports. Your numbers were inaccurate again this month; it’s slowing down the workflow.”

This mashup of information simply does not work.

If you’ve ever tried to economize with your communication, you’re not alone. Research by O.C. Tanner’s Global Culture Report finds that 42% of employees who received recognition from their leaders also received a message of “here’s how you can do better” within that same communication. Communicating with employees this way sends mixed messages, leaving them to wonder if your praise is genuine. Further, when recognition is paired with a suggestion for improvement, it sets up an atmosphere of “conditional” praise, in which the receiver wonders what, exactly, he or she must do to earn recognition that’s “worthy” of your notice.

Seem like I’m splitting hairs? Here’s a distinction that may help. Recognition is the act of acknowledging the contributions of a team member. When you give feedback you are letting someone know whether his or her actions had the intended impact. (Here’s a step-by-step process for giving feedback.)

Ideally, recognition demonstrates genuine appreciation for the employee as a human being, not just his contributions. Feedback is a way to shape future behaviors for improved results.

Both recognition and feedback are important aspects of the leader-team member relationship. When you conflate the two, you create confusion and resentment. Let’s go back to Jim for a moment. If you have two pieces of information to give Jim—one that praises and one that requests a different behavior -- you need to create space between the delivery of the two points.

For the recognition conversation, say, “Jim, I really appreciate that you stayed late last week to wrap up all the details for the Carson account. Your attention to detail set the stage for the big presentation on Tuesday. That’s something I can always count on; you go the extra mile to line up all the numbers. Thanks!”

If, at a later time (even later in the same video call), you need to address Jim’s inaccurate status reports, by all means, do so. Just don’t link it directly to your positive comments.

Conditional praise leaves a bad taste in employees’ mouth. Before you chat with team members, give thought to the types of information you’re about to impart to ensure your message is on point. Let positive comments stand on their own to show that you value your team members’ contributions.

 

Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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