Judy lives one block from my house. For nearly ten years, I have walked by her house, played with my children in the park across the street from her driveway, and even occasionally greeted her in passing. But until recently, Judy spooked me a little. She is getting pretty elderly and is confined to a motorized wheelchair. She has a small white dog that yaps at us incessantly when we walk by. And she can be, shall we say, gruff.
Thanks to my wife, my view changed over the last year. She started to get to know Judy and even organized a bunch of us to help do Judy’s autumn lawn work last October. Though I don’t see Judy very often, I hear about her quite regularly.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking home with my from his soccer practice and passed Judy out in her driveway. I greeted her briefly, exchanging a few of the pleasantries that neighbors share. I thought nothing of it.
The next day, my wife casually mentioned that Judy had called her on the phone. “She said that you are the nicest man she knows and she just loves to see you.”
A couple of days later, I was walking past Judy’s house again and those words rang in my ears. Instead of dreading the thought of seeing her, I paused for few moments, trying to see if she was behind the glare of her darkened windows. One sentence from my wife had completely changed how I looked at myself. Now I wasn’t the spooked-out neighbor looking for a way to politely avoid contact with the grumpy old lady. I was the nicest man in the world looking for an opportunity to bestow more “niceness” on my approving neighbor.
This is the power of positive feedback. Not only does it reinforce positive behavior – it actually creates positive behavior. When someone says something good about us, we want to live up to those words. Beyond that, it changes the relationships involved as well. John Gottman, one of the most renowned relationship researchers of our time, notes that the proportion of positive to negative feedback has a dramatic effect on the quality of relationships. His studies say that we need a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback to keep the relationship open and constructive.
What does this say to those of us coaching professionals? Once we get ourselves in position to provide feedback to a colleague, we need to think carefully about what sort of feedback will get the results we want. If my experience with Judy and John Gottman’s research tells us anything, it should be that the feedback should be positive more often than negative and it should reinforce the kind of behavior that we hope to multiply.
Why is this difficult for so many of us? For good reasons: We want to be genuine, not just stroke people. That’s good. No one likes to be manipulated (and that’s what stroking’s all about). But can’t we give positive, true feedback? We don’t want to coddle people. We need to keep the bar high. That’s also noble. Nothing sucks the life from a professional group more than mediocrity. But can’t we acknowledge steps in the right direction while still holding up high standards?