August 28, 2018,   8:00 AM

The Power of Positive Reinforcement in Management

Daniel Rongo

Chief Revenue Officer, Foodics FULL BIO

It is amazing how your words can change everything. The difference between “It won’t work,” and “You can do better,” is the perception and emotion behind these statements. While the first one is straightforward in its negative and demoralizing effect, the second one is has a much more encouraging tone. This is why when people ask me for feedback, I use the latter instead of the negative statement.

Like most corporate professionals, I am often asked for feedback from colleagues and entrepreneurs alike, who are looking for some words of guidance.

“What do you think about my idea?”

“Do you think I can make this business model work?”

“Do you think my strategy will work?”

“Am I not working efficiently?”

Although I feel honored when someone asks for my opinion, I frequently face the dilemma of whether to be straightforward or not. Often, I find myself assessing whether I can use the “It won’t work” statements. I want to give my most honest opinion but some people are simply not ready to hear my unfiltered view. This is where positive reinforcement, or, “You can do better,” statements come in.

Only a very small number of entrepreneurs or professionals are ready to hear negative but honest feedback. They are those who are looking for straightforward advice so that they can plan their future moves accordingly. Let’s call them Type A.

Type A people are mentally prepared for negative feedback or criticism because they are ready to take steps to improve their results. If you give them a simple “It won’t work,” type of statement, they immediately ask you a series of questions to further analyze the situation. As such, the Type A people need an honest reply so that they can improve their idea, their working process, and so forth. These people don’t need assurance; rather they believe in change and delivering real results.

In contrast to Type A, there are those who are primarily looking for some sort of confirmation; they want me to answer them with a positive statement. Let’s call them Type B.

The Type B people ultimately need me to validate their belief in themselves, which is exactly why we need positive reinforcement in the first place. As such, one must take care not to discourage these professionals and be wary of delivering the wrong feedback. These people are just not prepared for negative feedback or psychological disagreements. If I deliver an “It won’t work” statement directly to a Type B person, it can lead to arguments, ego issues, negative reactions, and even low self-confidence.

Ominously, if someone senior to you professionally or a person you report to happens to be a Type B person, you may want to be prepared for a tough office life from the moment you deliver a negative feedback.

When you examine the two above types, it becomes clear that the “It won't work,” statement is simply not ideal. To avoid discouraging people or reduce the chances of future conflicts, the “You can do better” statement is much more appropriate.

These are magical words, which can positively boost a person’s confidence. Just by saying, “You can do better,” you can avoid negative emotions and unfavorable outcomes. More specifically, this type of statement helps people believe that someone has faith in their potential, and as such, they put all their effort into achieving more.

It is very difficult to motivate a professional through a negative statement because very few people can handle upfront criticism. This often leads to unchecked emotions and hurt feelings, and ultimately your sincere feedback ends up doing more harm than good.

Personally, I have used this strategy to great effect within my own team, and I have seen its members evolve in a positive way. If a person comes to me and says, “Do you think this seems good to go?” and I say, “Yes, but, I think you have more potential than this,” he then goes back and often achieves a much higher quality of work.

More than anything else, this method of positive reinforcement has enabled me to create a psychologically safe, positive, and encouraging environment for employees. Because they are not afraid of expressing their ideas, it allows for an atmosphere that’s ready for new and innovative concepts. I believe that this also helps them consider me as a mentor rather than a boss. On the other hand, entrepreneurs feel comfortable enough to come to me for advice rather than thinking of me as a person who always discourages them.

I believe that being aware of people’s emotions is a more powerful quality than being upfront and straightforward. With a positive way of delivering feedback, work processes can be greatly improved and you can increase the efficiency of your team.

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