No Positive Feedback, No Intrinsic Motivation

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

Someone shared the above phrase with me when I was speaking at an IISE conference a few years ago. I now pass it along to others because of the powerful and logical message it conveys. How can someone expect us to improve, in the right performance areas, if we do not receive enough meaningful feedback about our current performance? What types of feedback do you get from your boss from week to week? How does that feedback affect your motivation level? What types of feedback do you give the people that depend on you for leadership, either at work or away from work? With little or no positive feedback, there will be little positive intrinsic motivation.

The Feedback – Motivation – Service Connection

Think about the actions we need to take if we want service to improve. I like to use the ‘restaurant customer’ analogy to help illustrate this point. We often expect the restaurant service we receive to improve, even though the the tip amount is the only feedback we provide to the waiter or waitress. We expect the relative value of the tip versus the 15 percent norm to serve as our key indicator of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. While a less than average tip might indicate dissatisfaction, it does not provide much usable feedback to the service provider.

Rarely do we tell our servers what our expectations will be. We don’t tell them that the value of their tip will be based on the speed of their service, the number of times they refill the water glass, and the friendliness they display during the course of the meal. Instead, we leave the table. We fail to give specific feedback against our performance expectations. We leave the server to decide why the tip was so small. What actions should they take with future customers to increase the potential for a better tip?

EXPLORE MORE: How Great is Your Customer Amazement Work System?

Positive Feedback and Intrinsic Motivation at Work

How often do we repeat this behavior in our organizations? How often do we fail to define expectations up front and provide specific feedback as to how well those expectations are being satisfied? We often expect performance to improve as the result of a new memo or a three-minute staff meeting tirade. If that does not work, we may sentence our poor performers to a day of training. Eight hours of lecture will surely somehow ignite their desire for future improvement. The message here is simple. No positive feedback, no positive intrinsic motivation.

Could you improve your putting skills in golf if you could not see the path of the ball as it approaches, and then goes into (or by) the cup? How long would your motivation level remain high? Now, add a coach who seems to focus primarily on your weaknesses. They give you feedback only in a manner that Mr. Spacely could appreciate. Would you continue to improve? How motivated would you be to even try to improve?

How Negative Feedback Can Destroy Motivation

Negative feedback, especially when it is delivered in an emotional manner, is not useful. Such feedback never reaches the part of the brain where learning truly occurs. Instead, we go into survival mode. The limbic system diverts the unpleasant stimulus to the ‘fight or flight’ portion of our brain, instead of sending the information to the neocortex. The learning portion of our brain shuts down to give us as much mental capacity as possible for protecting ourselves.

That’s enough of a biology lesson. In general, leaders often fail to define expectations clearly. They also often give only limited feedback relative to people’s performance against those expectations. When we do give feedback, it is more often than not of a negative nature. This form of feedback serves little purpose (other than to demotivate people). In spite of these shortcomings, we still expect people to improve and have the motivation to help us achieve our (and hopefully their) performance goals. Like the waiter who never seems to get better at keeping the water glass full, our staff just doesn’t seem to get it. Maybe we, as leaders and coaches, are the ones who just don’t get it. No feedback, no motivation.

DISCOVER MORE: How Do You Measure Leadership Behavior?

The Feedback – Motivation Solution

The solutions to this motivation problem seem obvious enough: define performance expectations up front, provide positive and frequent feedback specific to those expectations, and avoid using emotionally charged, negative feedback. If the solutions are so obvious, why isn’t there more motivation to apply them? The excuses are often as apparent as the solutions.

We don’t have time, we have our own Mr. Spacelys who won’t let up on us, and out staff wouldn’t listen to us anyway. Sounds like a vicious cycle doesn’t it? That is why this four word quote is so powerful. It defines a systems constraint, and it indicates a personal choice requirement. Motivation will not occur without feedback. If we give out the wrong kind of feedback, we are likely to motivate people in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, there is promise in learning to give effective feedback. It will help us to motivate people in the proper manner. Daily, positive, consistent, and meaningful feedback from a leader is a powerful performance enhancing ‘drug.’

Explore Your Own Positive Feedback – Intrinsic Motivation Connection

The hardest part about learning to give better feedback is looking more closely at ourselves. We give people feedback whenever we are around them – whether we say anything to them or not. Our e-mails, text messages, video calls, message board postings, a passing glance, and not saying something when something should have been said, in addition to our spoken words, are all forms of feedback that we give to our people. We give a lot of people feedback every day, but do we give them the right feedback, in the right manner? Do we really motivate them to do what we want, and need, on a consistent basis? How high is your ‘desire to improve’ motivation level?

LEARN MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

Keep improving! – Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

If you would like more information about the improvement tools and systems I have to offer, please send me an e-mail at kevin@greatsystems.com.

www.greatsystems.com            kevin@greatsystems.com

FOLLOW me on Twitter: @greatsystems

LIKE Great Systems on Facebook

CONNECT with me on LinkedIn

CHECK OUT my Amazon.com Author Page