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.

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