When to Avoid Giving Positive Feedback

Most people like compliments, praise, and positive comments. Most of the time. But sometimes it’s exactly the opposite of what we want. Every year, my husband gets great performance reviews at work, and every year it makes him a teensy bit depressed. “How am I supposed to grow if they never tell me what to work on?” he wonders.

Hearing nothing but complaints and criticisms definitely wears people down. But so does lack of direction and feedback. It’s frustrating to sense you aren’t measuring up, yet unable to figure out how or what to change. It’s equally as frustrating to work for an entire year and then suddenly discover in an annual evaluation that you weren’t meeting expectations. For employees (or bosses, or spouses, or vendors) who really want to do well, constructive feedback goes a LONG way toward feeling capable.

Not only can compliments seem incomplete, they can sometimes feel totally undeserved. I remember once I played piano for a friend’s wedding. I was exhausted heading into the weekend and had managed to leave half my sheet music at home. I did as best I could, but I knew I played poorly and I felt terrible! When I went through the receiving line and one of the bridesmaids gushed, “Thank you so much for coming and playing piano! That was amazing!” it did not make me feel better.

I glanced over at my friend, and he said, “Well… you got off to a rocky start, for sure. We were all looking at each other wondering if you’d be able to pull it off. But things smoothed out after that! It was actually fine.” I appreciated his honesty. And because he didn’t sugarcoat the truth, I was also able to accept that I’d probably played better than I thought.

In addition, compliments can sometimes be downright inappropriate. “Positive” comments that are irrelevant or too personal can leave the receiver feeling invaded or embarrassed. It can even come down to timing—a friend once told me, horrified, about how a receptionist had complimented her boots. What’s wrong with that? The compliment was delivered in the Emergency Room while my friend was trying to get help for her mother. What was supposed to be a compliment came across as completely insensitive under the circumstances.

So how can you tell what kind of feedback will be most useful and appreciated? It all comes down to what mode the person is operating from at the moment.

If you’re dealing with someone whose verbiage focuses on work, productivity, and solving problems, whose voice tone is flat, and who hardly makes eye contact because they’re keeping so busy, you know they are in Issue Mode. Do not waste their time with comments on their personal appearance or condescendingly pat them on the head and give them gold stars. If you want to make them feel good, help them get work done faster by getting out of the way.

If you MUST praise them, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep positive comments focused on the work, not the person.
  • Keep it short. Throw out a “Great job on the XYZ project!” over the cube wall as you walk by, so they don’t even have to respond.
  • Sandwich compliments with critical feedback. Usually, you hear the opposite advice: Give a compliment, then share where there’s room for improvement, and then end with more positive feedback. To someone who is in Issue Mode, however, you have to sneak the compliment in between the suggestions.

When someone is in “get it done” mode, they want information that will help them get it done. They want to know the parameters, the resources, the expectations, and where they’re off the mark, in order to make good use of their time and create a strong end result.

If, on the other hand, you hear the person talking about morale, taking care of others, and feelings, and you notice more open and relaxed body language and voice tone, and they are looking you in the eye with nods and smiles, it’s a safe bet that they’re in Relationship Mode. This person will appreciate generous praise and lots of encouragement. In fact, they need it! Make a point to say “Thank you,” “Good job,” or “You rock!”

They also need to hear the not-so-good stuff, too, though. Just be sure to sandwich the bad between the good—the opposite of what you would do with someone who is in Issue Mode.

We ALL need feedback, both positive and negative. The difference comes in how we’re each able to best process that feedback. When you give both compliments and criticism in the way that the other person can best receive it, they get work done faster and feel better about it. Everybody wins!


Change your communication, change your life.



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