Striking a Balance: When Positive Feedback Backfires

Image of constructive criticism puzzle

A conversation with a former colleague this week reminded me that the old saying is true—it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Over coffee, my friend shared some reflections and lessons learned she had identified after her first year as a manager. Like many new front-line managers, she was a high performer who was at high risk of leaving her organization until they offered her a promotion. Eager for a new challenge, she jumped at the opportunity to step into her first leadership role. Aside from leveraging the help and advice of other leaders internally, she wasn’t offered any formal training to develop her management/leadership skills so she primarily followed her instincts. In one situation, her instincts led her astray.

Her new team was relatively high-performing and had been intact for a few years, so she focused her time on getting to know each individual’s strengths and motivations first. During her one-on-one conversations with each team member, one particular individual seemed like a diamond-in-the-rough. She expressed her commitment to the organization, her track record for hitting goal year-over-year, and her desire to take on more responsibilities. It seemed that the only thing holding her back was a personal conflict she had with the previous manager. Without going into unnecessary detail, the employee explained that she felt targeted and it often seemed like she couldn’t do anything right in her manager’s eyes.

Seeing a clear opportunity to re-engage this employee and build her confidence, my colleague began a campaign of praise and positive feedback. Any and all wins were celebrated. Immediately, the plan appeared to be working. Morale was high and everyone praised her for bringing such positive energy to the team. The employee who had struggled under the previous manager was suddenly outperforming all of her team members. Everything was going well until one day, the manager offered some constructive feedback. The feedback was timely and truly constructive, but the employee reacted instantly with anger and placed the blame back on the manager.

The manager was shocked by the response as it was astonishingly disproportionate to the severity of the feedback. And, since she’d never had any training in how to hold critical conversations, she decided to abandon any kind of constructive feedback. Instead, she’d focus on being more strategic with her praise. Seeing that the employees would work even harder at the behaviors she praised, she planned to praise the positive behaviors excessively and ignore the ones that were counterproductive. She praised examples of strong collaboration within the team, but avoided calling attention to times when the failure to collaborate resulted in major errors. The team was happy and felt valued, but performance began to suffer.

By the time she decided the campaign of positive feedback wasn’t creating the results she needed, it happened to be time for performance reviews. The constructive feedback she offered during the team members’ formal reviews came as quite a surprise because all they expected was more of the same praise they’d received all year long.

In the end, her failure to provide honest, constructive feedback in-the-moment resulted in both performance problems and a significant loss of trust among team members. They felt blind-sided by the seemingly negative performance review in comparison to the consistent praise they’d experienced all year long.

Praise and positive feedback can be powerful tools for engagement and motivation, but as with all things, balance is key. Excessively positive feedback can backfire when it rewards average performance. It can also become ineffective if the individual perceives the praise is inauthentic. While constructive feedback can be uncomfortable at times, it is crucial to maintain balance and preserve the effectiveness of authentic positive feedback.