The Gift of Appreciative Feedback

Need help finding a gift this season for that friend, or colleague, or student, or family member? I invite you to consider a very inexpensive, simple, and life-changing gift.

The gift of appreciative feedback.

When I was starting out as an advisor to college and youth student groups, I thought that providing feedback meant only the critical stuff. And thus, I avoided it because I never felt comfortable giving constructive criticism. I’m still not comfortable with it, but I’m better at it now after years of practice. To me, it’s still the worst part of advising (albeit very important).

What I didn’t realize at the time was that developmental feedback had a cousin…a much more friendly cousin that fell right into my strengths zone and brought a whole lot of joy to the advising experience.

Appreciative feedback.

Appreciative feedback is that feedback which identifies a behavior that is positive, notices it, comments on it, helps add meaning to it, and thereby amplifies it more loudly than it would have otherwise been.

To me, it’s what makes advising fun. It’s the good stuff, man. It’s the chance to shine a light and watch a chin rise, or a chest puff, or a small grin of pride on the face of a young learner.

And we do not do it enough.

David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership: Help People Think Better-Don’t Tell Them What to Do! (2006) states that people tend to receive positive feedback only a few minutes out of every year, versus thousands of hours of negative feedback.

But wait, you might be thinking, I’m a positive person! I tell people good things all the time! That may be true, but note that true appreciative feedback goes much deeper than “good job” or “I’m proud of you.”

Real appreciative feedback is not just a compliment. It is precise and personal. And, it should focus on behaviors and qualities you want to see more of. 

Knowing what those specific qualities are is the first step. For example, one quality we often want to see more of is hard work. As important as that is, it’s still too vague. What do we mean by hard work? You will need to answer for yourself, but if I’m advising a group of students it might include things like:

  • Tenacity: Can a student work through a setback or a challenge?
  • Determination: In a given task, does a student stay focused and not give up on the goal?
  • Optimism: Is there a glimmer in their eye, even when times are tough or the road is long?

Once you have identified some of these specific behaviors, then you can start looking for them. And that’s when being an advisor in the room becomes a whole lot less boring, and much more intentional. Your job is not to simply be present, but to scan the room searching for behaviors that deserve appreciate feedback.

According to authors Judith Wilson and Michelle Gislason, who wrote Coaching Skills for Nonprofit Managers and Leaders (2010), appreciative feedback, if done well, has three primary elements:

  1. Observation: Making an observation of a positive action, behavior, or demonstrated quality.
  2. Acknowledgment: Sharing that observation using the facts of what you saw.
  3. Appreciation: Helping to give meaning to the action or behavior by sharing what it means to you or the impact it can have.
For example, let’s say you show up to the weekly chapter meeting, and you observe the President taking time before the meeting starts to move throughout the room, shake hands with the members and thank them individually for being there. (Observation)

After the meeting, you pull the President aside and say “I noticed that you were greeting people before the meeting and taking extra time to welcome them.” (Acknowledgment)

You continue by saying, “I really enjoyed seeing that because I feel that it set a very positive tone for the meeting and the members who took the time to come felt valued and appreciated. This is impactful because it might mean some of these members now understand the importance of being here and will make greater efforts to never miss a meeting. Plus, they likely feel more connected and engaged to the chapter overall.” (Appreciation)

Boom. Simple. And advising magic.

Author Michael Brandwein also has a good framing of this, and he calls it (1) Describe it, (2) Label it, and (3) Praise it. He is also very fond of acronyms and advocates for the L.A.S.E.R.B.E.A.M. technique. Which stands for: Look for Any Signs of Excellent behavior; then: Respond to that Behavior to Educate And Motivate.

Some things to consider:

  • Sincerity is essential, and fake or throw-away compliments can be smelled a mile away.
  • Students are a different levels of growth at all times, and so what would be meaningful appreciative feedback for one might be too simplistic for another.
  • During meetings, or activities, and whenever a group of students is together, I challenge myself to find at least 3 students who are deserving of appreciative feedback that day. I try to find different students each time, but some repeat-recipients are inevitable.
  • While appreciative feedback is best delivered personally and individually, it’s not always bad for others to overhear, since it helps to build awareness of what behaviors are rewarded.
  • On occasion I will deliver appreciative feedback in public to more greatly amplify the message and if I feel the student would benefit from the spotlight of recognition.

Advisors, let’s all commit to making this next year one in which we work harder at appreciative feedback than ever before. I think we’ll be amazed at the results, and also amazed at how much more worthwhile our jobs become.

Let’s give a gift that’s irreplaceable, the gift of appreciative feedback.

A Senior's Thanks

“Gentlemen, please be quiet!”

The roar of the room continued unabated.

“Gentlemen, please!” the President shouted again.

“Guys SHUT UP!” offered the much more forceful Vice President, who was blessed with a thunderous voice. The room finally settled down.

“Thanks Ben. Welcome guys to our annual Thanksgiving dinner. The dining room is clean, you guys are mostly clean, and we’re going to have nice night. Our wonderful house-mom Rhonda did an absolutely great job with the dinner – so let’s thank her.”

Rhonda answered the cheers and applause by standing up to take a showy bow.

The President continued: “Don’t start eating just yet. Before we do, let’s go around the room this year and each person can say something they’re thankful for.”

Moans and groans were accompanied by someone shouting “let’s impeach the president!”

The room cheered and a dinner roll found itself narrowly missing the President’s head. He laughed. “Hey – this is what my family does, and I claim each you as family. Even Landry.”

“F*#@ you” said Landry.

“Let’s start to my left.”

“I’m thankful for food. Can we please eat now?” the first brother quipped.

“Keep going,” said the President.

“I’m thankful for all you guys,” said the next brother. He was met with a chorus of sarcastic awws.

The next brother said “I’m thankful for sororities!” “Damn right!” shouted another.

And around the room they went, one after another, some comments serious but most were half-hearted and meant to show one’s wit in favor of one’s vulnerability.

And then it was the Senior’s turn. He was the only Senior to arrive tonight, and some of the youngest guys had only met him a few times. He had been nervously playing with the cloth napkin in front of him, but now looked out at his brothers with confident and mature eyes that showed there was something he wanted to say.

“I guess I’m thankful for a lot,” he started. “But I’ll be clear tonight in saying that I’m thankful for this fraternity.”

“Okay let’s eat now!” interrupted the first brother.

“Hold on,” the Senior said. “I’m not finished.”

“I’m thankful for every moment – good, bad, or otherwise – spent in this fraternity so far. I’m thankful for every man seated around these tables tonight. I am thankful for the fun times, the laughter, the horsing around, the pranks, and more.”

He continued, “I am thankful in equal measure for the times that were uncomfortable, challenging, and miserably difficult. Maybe even more so. I tend to think most of who I am was forged by the fire of hard times.”

The room had become very quiet. Silverware didn’t clink as it laid quietly beside the plates. The soft tinkling of ice settling in the water glasses was the only sound, along with the gentle scuffling of someone’s shoes against the hardwood floor.

“I am thankful for all of you that came to my grandpa’s funeral. You made that sad day exceptionally special.”

“I am thankful for Doug. I bet you a million dollars I would have never met a guy like Doug if not for this fraternity. And I’m thankful for Jeff. Those who know me know that Jeff and I have never gotten along. In fact, there are times we downright hated each other. We may never see eye-to-eye, but Jeff, I respect you and I am absolutely thankful for you.”

“I am thankful for all those who surround us and try to make us better. Our alumni board, our chapter advisor, Rhonda. They have made a choice to give a part of their lives away, so that our lives can be stronger. That’s selfless stuff guys. We owe them our best – and consider that every time you’re about to do something stupid.”

“Speaking of that, I’m thankful for surviving all of my stupid moments. I’m going to make sure the lessons I’ve learned are passed on to you.”

“I am thankful for the courage I’ve seen in this fraternity over the years. The courage for Paul to take that step to leave the fraternity so that he could get his act together. The courage for Bryce to help Paul realize that. I’m thankful for Gavin’s courage in coming out. And I’m thankful for the courage all of you had in learning to first accept it, and now appreciate it.”

“I’m thankful that we’re all there for each other. I wonder if we’ll truly ever appreciate how special it was to have these connections during this time in our lives.”

“I’m thankful for that guy from the national office who was here last week. Yeah, okay, boo if you want, but think about his vocation right now. It’s to visit dopes like us, help us better understand the power of this thing we belong to, and ultimately help us live closer to its ideal. I’m thankful he came into our lives and I know you are too.”

“I’m thankful for our potential. I’ve decided that potential is like a wild bird that is hard to grab, and harder to hold. But I’ve seen us hold it. We’ve held it in those moments in which we stepped outside of ourselves to help a brother in need. We’ve held it when we’ve stared down the popular choice and went for the right one instead. We’ve held it when the moment stood larger than us, but we found a way to rise to it anyhow. But we’ve also let the wild bird go. Too often. But, in a way, I’m thankful for those moments too. Why make this whole thing easy?”

“I’ll say it again - I am thankful for this fraternity. I am thankful for each and every word of each and every oath I’ve ever said in its name.”

“I am thankful for the badge you allow me to wear, which is a privilege earned by faithfulness to our Ritual and creed.”

“I am thankful for the chance to sit here with my brothers a different man, a better man, than I was three years ago. And I promise to all of you, and to this fraternity, I will do all in my power in the life ahead of me…to make you thankful for me.”

The room was made silent by his words.

What couldn’t be heard, but could be seen if you were there, were small acts of men telling other men how much they were loved. One brother gripped the shoulder of another. A brother gave a sharp punch into the shoulder of the brother next to him. Another brother wiped away a tear before it could be seen.

The almost spiritual quiet was finally broken by that first brother, speaking a little more gently this time.

“Can we eat now?”

The President smiled wide.


Women Are Owning Student Leadership

In student leadership, women are stepping forward and men are fading into the background.

My middle son, a few years ago, was a crazy fan of the Wiggles.  He knew all of the words to the songs and all of the moves to the dances.  I learned to somewhat accept the Wiggles because…well…they weren't Barney.

And you’ve got to respect these Aussies.  According to their Wikipedia page, The Wiggles have earned several Platinum, Double Platinum and Multi-Platinum records, as well as sold 23 million DVDs and 7 million CDs, and have performed, on average, to one million people per year.

For years, the Wiggles were four men: Anthony, Greg, Jeff, and Murray.  They retired and were replaced by some new members. My youngest son stumbled upon the new Wiggles performing their new songs on YouTube, and I was a little stunned.  They now have a female member!  And she actually seems to be the leader.  This is great – and she’s great – but it’s definitely a shift for the longstanding group. 

I thought about this for a moment, and it struck me that this is sort of like what is happening in the world of student leadership.  The only way it might be even more relevant to our shifting landscape is if the Wiggles re-booted with all women instead of one.

Not only is leadership more accessible to women in higher education today, on most campuses, they are OWNING it.  This isn’t really that new of an observation or occurrence.  However, what is making it more apparent isn’t the continued emergence of women, but rather the shrinking of men.  Men dominated the leadership landscape for a long time, but once women showed up for the party, it seems they went and hid in the basement.  

Before I am accused of not celebrating women’s rise in this regard, I see this is as a fabulous achievement in our society.  When women are involved, it creates a better overall leadership dynamic.  However, in solving one problem, have we created a new one?  In terms of student leadership, we blew right past that 50-50 gender equality statistic and landed somewhere closer to 70-30 in favor of women.  And, it seems like that ratio isn’t going to balance anytime soon.  Are we heading from one extreme to the other?

It’s not just college either.  I used to work with one of the largest and most prominent high school organizations – Key Club – and I noticed it there as well.

The problem is magnified even more when you take into account leadership drive and ability.  When I worked at the NIC and conducted UIFI or IMPACT sessions, it was clear who was in charge.  The Panhellenic Councils were the movers and shakers, the pace-setters, and the power players.  Many of the Interfraternity Councils were struggling to keep up.  Too many of the IFCs would have served their members better to just dissolve and let the Panhellenic Councils take over their governance. 

I’m not saying that in all cases the Panhellenics were effective – just stronger.  

Recently, I had to chance to address almost 1000 new members at a large university. As the room filled, I took note of what is now an expected reality: the men sat in the back, spread out and slouching. The women were at the front, sitting straight and ready to learn. The men wanted to be ignored and unseen, and they were.

While the overall societal affects haven’t been felt as strongly yet (in many industries, men still dominate the leadership), it’s coming.  More women are going to college, more women are succeeding in college, and more women are taking hold of leadership opportunities in college.  Men are being left in the dust.

How have we arrived at this problem of slacker men being run over by uber-achieving women?  Here are my guesses:

Leadership is becoming more relationship-oriented.  Whereas in our fathers’ time, leadership involved power, hierarchy, and tough-minded authority (think Mad Men's Don Draper), today’s conventional wisdom around leadership is that good ones make a solid human connection with the members of their team.  The leader of today listens well, understands emotion, involves others in decision-making, and motivates through recognition and support.  This is more natural turf for women.

The rewards have changed.
  Competitiveness, personal ambition, and high achievement used to be the things that set students apart from each other in a positive way.  Men thrive when these things are valued, and always have.  So do many women.  In seems that nowadays, these values are not only de-emphasized, but viewed negatively.  Someone with these values is seen as egotistical.  The values that tend to be rewarded now are cooperation, humility, and selflessness.  Again, men are capable of succeeding with these values but they are more natural for women. 

We expect less from men.
  In my current hometown, the local men’s suit store went out of business.  I assume that’s happening in a lot of places because men just don’t dress up like they once did.  This is a minor, but telling point about the state of men today.  They’re not expected to carry themselves like they once did.  When I walk on campuses today, the men look and dress like they were just yanked out of an underground bunker by a Navy SEAL team.  They drift slowly to class, staring at their cell phone, while groups of women blow past them talking with each other about how solve world hunger, or something like that.  Our society is just tolerating the slacker man right now.  It’s cute.  It’s funny.  But, it’s troubling.

It’s academic.  
According to the U.S. Department of Education in Fall 2017, women comprised more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women enrolled in college that year.  By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women. Studies have also shown that women are doing better academically than men while in college.  So, if women are succeeding in the classroom, they are likely to succeed in other places as well.

It’s easier for advisors to work with women. Simply put, women are more reliable
than men, tend to listen and work with adult advisors better, and are more coachable. Again, it’s about their strengths in building relationships. Because of this, they may get increased opportunities and support in their leadership efforts.

There are many other factors as well. For example, some argue that our K-12 education system is designed more for female learners. Also, the video game factor is real, and shouldn’t be dismissed. Media portrayals of young men certainly favor the slacker lifestyle. It's a multi-faceted issue.  
As I’m apt to do, I see fraternity as a primary solution.  There are few men's-only experiences left in our world today, and if handled correctly, fraternities can become supportive environments that rebuild men's leadership potential.  

We can learn a lot from sororities.  A sorority is still a place where a less-confident, less-skilled, and less-motivated young lady can go and emerge four years later as a savvy, confident, and inspired woman.  Can we say that for your fraternity today?  Does your fraternity take a slacker and make him a man who is ready to take on the world?  Or is it actually the reverse?  

It starts with making leadership development a signature priority for your organization.  There are many criteria by which to measure your fraternity’s success, but one of the biggest should be how many capable leaders you graduate each year.  The answer is not easy, but it’s simple: we need to raise expectations for how men in our organization engage both inside and outside the fraternity.

We can reclaim the confidence and swagger that made us compelling leaders before, and match those qualities with the relational leadership skills that the world now expects.   We can still command a room, but yet find depth in conversations.  We can bring a spark of ambition along with an ounce of humility.  And yes IFC men, we can also bring an occasional (and much needed) dose of calm flexibility to a Panhellenic world that can get too heavily controlled and structured.  This is what balance in the leadership universe looks like. 

In a world where we keep asking about the relevance of fraternities, we have yet another answer: to reverse the tide of diminishing men and turn them instead into eager, committed, and strong partners with women in leading our world forward.  

It’s a good thing that women have emerged as leaders and are here to stay.  However, that doesn’t mean that men need to vanish.   Gentlemen, the women around us have issued a challenge.  They are standing in front singing their hearts out.  What are we going to do?


This Wednesday, September 12, the North American Interfraternity Conference is asking all fraternity men to tweet, using the hashtag #myFraternity, about the impact of their fraternity experience. The goal, as I see it, is to fill the twitter-verse and beyond with positive reflections of an institution that often faces disparagement.

Okay, I’ll play. 

Here are some initial thoughts about what I might say...
#myFraternity taught me that being a fraternity man is not easy. But nothing in life that's worthwhile ever is.

#myFraternity provided me with countless real-life leadership lessons and experiences. 

#myFraternity was the best way to live my college years.

#myFraternity occupied a house that was often a pit, and made my mother cry whenever she left me there and drove away. But it was home. And when I drove away the last time, I may have cried too.

#myFraternity didn’t shy away from shenanigans. And I’m smiling big right now thinking about one in particular.

#myFraternity has a very compelling Ritual. Which is better than a beautiful one. Because I still think about it.

#myFraternity looked out for each other. My brothers were a constant and daily force in my life back then, and still are today.

#myFraternity wasn’t just a club. It was an education.

#myFraternity taught me the difference between the big things that matter and the little things that don’t.

I appreciate how self-governed #myFraternity was. Sure, we made plenty of mistakes, but we lived to tell the tale.

I love #myFraternity because we basically looked the opposite of those posed, well-coiffed, smiles and shoulder-grabbing stock-photo pictures of fraternity men. 

#myFraternity showcased how tough and relentless men can be when they go at each other, and yet how accepting and forgiving they can be when they come back together.

#myFraternity gave me a set of ideals and values to hold up against my actions and decisions. It's a timeless roadmap.

#myFraternity was a gift to my life. Not a gift that ends up in a drawer or on a shelf...but rather a gift that is always displayed, cared for, and treated as though it's as precious as any possession could be.

#myFraternity led me to a career in higher education, which led me to pursue a graduate degree, which led me to meet a sorority woman who was on the same path, and she became my soul mate, and my wife. 

#myFraternity made me laugh. At least twice as much as it made me mad. That’s a good ratio if ever you can find it.
#myFraternity opened my eyes to all the dedicated professionals devoted to #myFraternity experience. Thank you.
The last place I stood on campus before I walked to the graduation ceremony was #myFraternity house.
#myFraternity stays with me as I journey through life.

I will forever be thankful for #myFraternity.

Join in and follow the hashtag #myFraternity on September 12. I encourage you to avoid the glossy brochure-speak and be real and authentic in what fraternity has given you. 

Reality Fraternity

A big hat tip to Ellen Shertzer and her colleagues for a lunchtime conversation that inspired this post. It's their idea I have expanded upon.

I am a fan of reality TV for two primary reasons:  (1) as an observer of human nature it’s fun to watch some of these shows as a social experiment, and (2) escapist trashy TV can be fun.  

My wife likes The Bachelor, and every once in a while I’ll catch some of it out of the corner of my eye as I’m passing through the ro...ahh...I admit I love it too.  It’s good TV.  Lots of drama, heroes, villains, and suspense.  Don’t judge.

The interesting thing about The Bachelor is that the relationships formed on the show rarely work
out.  Most crash and burn.  But, it’s very obvious as to why.  When the "bachelor" and his female suitors go on dates on the show, it’s the stuff of romantic fantasies.  Helicopter rides.  Dining on rooftops.  Walks on the world’s best beaches.  Floating on yachts under tropical sun.  Everything is hyper-romantic and simply perfect.  And then, the season ends with a hilltop proposal and dancing until the sun comes up.  

A few months later, the perfect couple shows up again to reveal their status, and you can tell from their faces that it has gone South.  A big dramatic breakup typically comes shortly thereafter.  

The show creates impossible expectations for a romantic relationship.  Anyone who has been in a marriage or long-term partnership knows that it’s tough work sometimes.  There are no helicopter rides or moonlit dinners.  Those are replaced by the stuff of regular life.  It doesn’t mean that romance isn’t there - you just have to dig through reality to find it.

Perhaps there are lessons for fraternities here, especially in regards to how we promote and present ourselves to potential members.  Do we oversell the fraternity experience and our own organizations?  

I remember recruitment when I was an undergrad.  Every fraternity I met with claimed the best parties, and the strongest brotherhood.  Each one had the best house, greatest alums, and the tastiest food.  Strangely, each group had also won the previous year’s Greek Week (must have been a 15-chapter tie).  There was no shortage of trophies and awards to display.

And what about the chapters that rely on big splashy events for recruitment? They take recruits to amusement parks, sporting events, or turn their chapter houses into a Hooters franchise. Just like The Bachelor paints love as wine and roses every day, these fraternities are painting a picture that fraternity life is a constant party. 

We have an apathy problem in fraternities and sororities.  We also have a lot of dropouts.  I wonder if some of that can be attributed to the mismatch of expectations and reality.  If we create a lofty vision of the fraternity experience, but don’t deliver, why should we be surprised that people break up with us? And what's more, we're likely not attracting the right members by selling the superficial aspects. We get the party-lovers and then expect them to roll up their sleeves and work.

It’s about being authentic.  Represent yourself honestly, and you may be surprised by what you get in return.  Perhaps if The Bachelor had a few episodes when the couples had to live for a few hours in a house with a screaming baby, or got lost on a stressful drive together, they might be better prepared.  Perhaps if you weren’t shy about your faults as a fraternity, your new members would more likely embrace the experience.  Maybe your recruitment pitch should sound something more like this:

I want you to be a member of this fraternity.  But before you decide, there are some things you need to know.  We have a strong brotherhood, but not because we’re always laughing and having fun.  We fight sometimes.  We argue.  We disagree with each other a lot.  We are a strong brotherhood because we work through those things.   

You won’t like every guy in here.  Some you may actually dislike a lot.  But I can say with great confidence that there are a few future groomsmen and best friends in here as well.
We win Greek Week sometimes.  We lose more often.  Same with intramurals and homecoming competitions.  We don’t have as many trophies as the other guys, but I think we play a little harder.

You’ll need to work.  This house doesn’t clean itself.  There aren’t elves who show up in the middle of the night and cut the grass.  We do those things.  There will be dozens of times in which the state of this house will piss you off.  There are other times when you’ll be too lazy to do your duties, and that will piss us off.

Many of these guys will let you down.  They’ll make stupid decisions and leave you hanging. Many of us will disappoint you from time to time.  You may want to quit.  Or punch someone.  

But, if you find the lessons in each of those moments, you’ll be better.  If you learn understanding, then you’re on your way to mastering the greatest of leadership skills.  If you can learn to hold people accountable without being a jerk, then people will want to work for you some day.  

There may be a fraternity up the street that has only perfect parties, perfect meetings, and perfect sorority relations.  But perfect isn’t a very good teacher.  And, it’s an illusion anyway. 

If you’re willing to be vulnerable, to make mistakes, and to work hard, then you are well-suited to be in this fraternity.  Being a fraternity man isn’t easy, but nothing worthwhile in life ever is.  Just because we may not be the ideal fraternity doesn’t mean that signing this bid card won’t be the best decision of your life. 

And besides, if we were perfect, then we wouldn’t need you to make us better.
Highs and lows.  Joy and conflict.  Success and disappointment.  Terribly frustrating and tremendously fulfilling.

That’s the reality.