Why catching your team in the act of doing good is so important right now

by Burl Stamp

“It seems like they only notice when we do something wrong!”

When working with frontline staff, I’ve certainly heard that statement more than once. In many cases, the complaint might be overstated, and employees may even admit that if pressed. But staff usually think that leaders are too critical not because they point out problems too often. Rather, it is because they offer positive feedback too seldom.

In our T.E.A.M. leadership model, observation is one of the important practices within the “Mentor” module. By spending time in the trenches with staff, leaders have a much more powerful platform to provide feedback – both positive and constructive.

Right now, spending time on the front line alongside your team is more important than ever. With anxiety running high during the pandemic, it is even more crucial to convey the message that you really do see and understand what they are going through.

Is this really the right time to provide more feedback?

So, it is easy to see how increased visibility is good. But is this the right time to be observing staff and offering feedback? Some leaders might argue, “Aren’t they under enough stress already?”

Unfortunately, underlying this concern is the perception that feedback is always negative. That’s why young leaders are often reluctant to provide it on a consistent basis. To debunk that concern, we encourage “5-to-1” feedback. This philosophy suggests that leaders should strive to provide positive reinforcement five times as often as they offer constructive criticism.

This concept has its roots in psychologists’ work with couples. In a long-term study, they found that when the ratio of positive-to-negative comments between partners dropped below 5-to-1, the divorce rate started going up.

Smart business school researchers wondered if the same dynamic would hold true in organizations. They published their study in the Harvard Business Review in 2004, which revealed that in high performing organizations the positive-to-negative feedback ratio was 5.6 to 1. In low performing organizations, it was .36 to 1. So, in other words, leaders and team members in organizations with lower profitability, poorer quality and slower growth expressed three times as many negative comments as positive ones.

This study showed a high correlation, not causation, between feedback practices and operational performance. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the way leaders think about and provide feedback can influence workplace climate and performance.

Now is the time for leaders to not only be visible but to offer balanced feedback as they observe the way care is provided. Given the dedication and sacrifices of most frontline healthcare professionals, my guess is that the positive-to-negative feedback ratio might be much closer to 100-to-1.

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