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High-quality feedback: Now more than ever

Bob Milligan for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2021

You and your workforce have never seen today’s level of uncertainty. Anything you can do to reduce uncertainty in your workforce will be greatly appreciated and increase motivation and productivity.

There is likely no better way to reduce uncertainty than to provide high-quality feedback.



Quality feedback will reduce uncertainty directly and indirectly. Directly, the reduction is by enabling the employee to be more confident that he or she is meeting his or her and your performance expectations. Indirectly, quality feedback contributes by increasing the employee’s confidence that he or she is succeeding and improving. These positive feelings then contribute to mitigating life’s uncertainties.

As we have frequently discussed, I strongly believe there are three – not two – types of feedback. They are positive, redirection and negative. Today, we discuss positive and redirection. Negative feedback should be used sparingly and with great compassion.

Positive feedback

Think about how children, including your own, respond to positive comments. I think you will agree they almost always respond with great expression and exuberance. Are you, your partners, your employees, your family, your friends different from these children in the response to positive feedback? Let me suggest the answer is a lot no and a little yes. The no is: Our internal, real emotional responses are very similar. I believe everyone has positive emotional responses to positive feedback.

The yes is: Most of us do not outwardly show that joy as children do. Unfortunately, we have been socialized, “learned,” to believe such expressions are not “adult-like.” Unfortunate, but true. The important message is that we all respond positively to positive feedback.

The following are four critical attributes of effective positive feedback:


  • Specific: Too often positive feedback is “you are doing a great job” or “great work.” Unfortunately, the employee does not know what he or she did to earn the compliment. All feedback, including positive, must be specific. Examples: “I really appreciate your noticing and checking on the cow that was lying too long” or “Thank you for your continued vigilance that the loads going into storage meet our quality standards.”

  • Timely: “Do not pass go, do not collect $200,” provide the positive feedback immediately. Positive feedback does not store well; the value will be largely depleted by the time of the next annual performance review (not that I am an advocate of traditional annual performance reviews).

  • Genuine: You must mean what you say and show that you genuinely appreciate the great work the employee is doing. Genuine is an important component of the connection psychological need I often discuss. The employee must see that you value their contributions as a person, not just as an employee.

  • Appropriate: Don Shula (football coach) states in Everyone’s a Coach, “Good performance should always be treated differently than poor performance.” This sounds obvious but is not always followed. Positive feedback should only be given for positive behaviors or outcomes. If the expectation was not met, redirection or negative feedback is needed. Positive feedback is reserved for successful effort or improvement.

Redirection feedback

With the usual thinking that there are two types of feedback (positive and negative), all failures to meet performance or behavior expectations produce the same response – a negative feedback, usually considered to be a reprimand. The shortcoming of this approach is: The reason for the failure is not considered (the root cause; the why). In my experience, many if not most failures are due to something not under the control of the employee. In this case, a reprimand is not only inappropriate; it can be very damaging to the relationship between the employee and his or her supervisor.

Enter redirection feedback: Redirection feedback enables the employee to overcome the cause of the failure by providing what is needed – training, clarity, encouragement, support, redefined expectations – to meet the expectation: success.

In this time of uncertainty, we all need to feel in control of our life (choice) and that we are succeeding (competence). Redirection feedback contributes to both.

The goal of redirection feedback is to improve performance without damaging the relationship with the employee. Providing redirection feedback, however, is not easy as employees can easily interpret it as negative feedback. None of us want to hear that our performance is lacking.

The following should help you provide excellent redirection feedback:

  • Begin with and include throughout positive feedback on positive efforts and expectations met or exceeded.

  • Communicate, without blaming, that the current performance is not acceptable, but you are here to help – not reprimand. Often difficult to successfully communicate.

  • Emphasize that he or she is not at fault. The situation was the cause of the unacceptable performance. It is often difficult to convey that this is not a reprimand. Your employee will likely have at least some negative reactions. Work to keep this short lived and to keep the employee from becoming defensive.

  • Provide the required changes in the situation – skills learned, knowledge gained, behaviors changed, actions taken, resources provided, expectations adjusted – to enable “successful” performance.

  • Redirect to succeed.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, you have a fantastic leadership opportunity; excellent positive and redirection feedback can be a large part of seizing that opportunity. end mark


PHOTO: Mike Dixon.

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

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