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Positive feedback by post: on open practice and reflecting on your ‘best self’ in a virtual team

I recently came across this article in the Harvard Business Review on how to use positive feedback for personal & professional development. The article points to a tool/service but in itself contains useful pointers and ideas explaining why positive feedback is important, how to give/receive it and reflecting on why this may be difficult:

‘Most people are well-attuned to critical feedback; it is jarring, threatening, and emotional, and as a result, quite memorable. In contrast, it is often easy to let positive reflections on our actions subtly slip us by. Lingering in the glow of praise can also feel uncomfortably immodest. It therefore takes practice to savour moments of positivity and to hold them in your memory.’

In my experience that certainly rings true and I found the suggestions the authors make for practising helpful. They come up with five steps:

  • Noticing positive feedback, including creating a space where you can save it, like an email folder or pin board;
  • Asking questions, teasing out exactly what it is about what you did that made a positive impact;
  • Studying your success (personally I don’t like this phrase, but the idea is sound), reflecting on what you did and how/why you succeeded;
  • Practising enacting the most positive aspect of yourself, making space in your day to day work where you can see the positive impact you have on others, or on the organisation;
  • Share positive feedback with others, establishing giving and receiving positive feedback more firmly in your practice.

One of the things that really stood out for me is the prompt to reflect on what I did well, what made a positive impact, rather than reflect in order to improve, focusing on what I could have done better or to gain a more critical perspective. I don’t think I habitually make time or space to focus exclusively on positive feedback although I receive quite a lot of it.

That brings me to another point, which is how this sits within open practice. There are many upsides for me to being an Open Practitioner. It often brings with it a lot of valuable input from others, interesting ideas, suggestions for how to develop, sharing their perspective etc. But it doesn’t (for me) make for the most comfortable space in which to share praise or reflect on positive feedback. I can express a balanced perspective, i.e. including things that went well alongside things that could have gone better, but there’s always a sense of vulnerability when I write about a success because someone might well respond to point out flaws, mistakes or their own personal negative experience. In a leadership role especially it’s common to express positive achievements in such a way that there’s always room for contrasting views. And that doesn’t create the right kind of space for focusing on positive feedback alone.

I’ve also come to realise that positive feedback means more to me when it’s given in private. Sometimes I receive heartfelt praise, sent to me personally rather than shared publicly and often the tone and content of feedback like is more meaningful for me. It matters that someone took the time to send positive feedback specifically, thought about it enough to feel the need to share it with me. I try and do this myself regularly and what I say and write to individuals personally differs from what I would say when praising them in public. Even within a small team, praising someone has meaning for all who are present, whilst personal positive feedback can be worded to be more relevant to the individual alone. It’s not an aspect of my practice that I feel can easily be translated into the open – but maybe that is something worth thinking about.

Next: Positivity by post

Given that I work in a virtual team, positive feedback generally comes in digital form. But I want to try and create something very tangible to test out some of the ideas I’ve discussed above and here is how: I’m going to send an envelope to each of my colleagues in the post, enclosing a piece of positive feedback from me to them, as well as three feedback slips from them to each of us and envelopes to send those to each other. That way, I hope, we will each receive some pieces of positive post over the next week or so. Positivity by post, if you like. I’ll report back on how it turns out.

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