Why Positive Psychology Belongs in Feedback (Webinar Recap)

The way people are giving and receiving feedback in the workplace is broken. That’s the message Jen Ostrich and Pete Berridge bring in Reflektive’s latest webinar, Why Positive Psychology Belongs in Feedback. As co-founders of the Change Positive and Shift Positive 360 method, Ostrich and Berridge explain the flaws in traditional feedback methodologies, recommending instead the adoption of positive feedback in the workplace.

What’s Wrong with Traditional Feedback Strategies?

To illustrate the problems with typical feedback, Ostrich and Berridge asked the webinar audience to think of a time when they either gave or received feedback — and to describe the situation using single words. Responses were overwhelmingly negative — anxious, nervous, misunderstood, tense, and uncomfortably vulnerable. Feelings of psychological safety between colleagues are important for productive conversations, and these adjectives don’t reflect feeling safe. 

Ostrich and Berridge identified several reasons people seem to dread feedback. Flaws in the system include:

  • Meeting only once a year in annual performance reviews
  • Tying feedback to compensation and promotions
  • Focusing on weaknesses rather than strengths
  • A lack of context surrounding feedback
  • Feedback is confidential rather than transparent
  • Follow-up support after feedback is not offered or tracked

To illustrate the effect these flaws have on employees, Ostrich cited neuroscientist David Roth’s SCARF system. SCARF refers to threats to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness (a person’s sense of safety and support), and Fairness. Any of these threats trigger the same physiological and psychological responses as a life-threatening event. All five can be triggered in a typical feedback session. 

If feedback, as it exists, is a broken system, how do we give and receive constructive feedback in a healthy, productive manner? Ostrich and Berridge look to positive psychology for answers. 

What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a relatively new area of psychology. Spearheaded in 1990 by Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, positive psychology is the study of what makes life worth living. It’s the study of well-being, of what makes us flourish. Ostrich and Berridge apply positive psychology to feedback by:

  • Building on strengths rather than focusing on weakness
  • Using existing strengths to open doors to new possibilities
  • Focusing less on the “why” of a problem, and more on the “how” and “what.”

In Ostrich and Berridge’s opinion, discussions of weakness have no place in workplace feedback. The weakness (the why) isn’t as important as the solution (how can we improve).

As an example, Ostrich offers an example of why positive language matters during feedback with two questions:

  • Why are employees disengaged?
  • How can we improve employee engagement?

The first question focuses on the “why,” or the weakness. The second ignores the why, focusing instead on the solution. The goal isn’t to identify the inefficiency; it’s to move forward and build on existing strengths.

SEE ALSO: Ultimate Guide to Employee Check-Ins

Social Support and Feedback in the Workplace

Positive feedback in the workplace has to extend beyond meetings. To be truly effective, employees receiving feedback need a social support system to help them build on their existing strengths. Change does not happen alone. One constant variable turns up again and again when looking at successful long-term change: the support of colleagues. 

Berridge recommends a system of two-way accountability. Feedback givers should commit to one thing they can do to support the feedback receiver as he or she moves forward. Ideally, each person has a group of six to eight supportive allies, all committed to supporting the individual’s action plan. 

To create such support groups, feedback needs to make the move from confidential meetings to transparency. Team members need to know what their colleagues are working toward in order to provide adequate support and mentoring. In a culture of positive feedback, constructive criticism does not have to be confidential. 

Why Positive Psychology Belongs in Feedback offers an exciting opportunity for giving and receiving feedback in the workplace. Check it out for a more in-depth discussion of positive feedback and how to apply positive psychology to your own organization. 

SEE ALSO: How to Effectively Change Performance Management