Why Your Positive Feedback isn’t working

“Good job!”

When her boss said it, Susan was delighted to hear the words out lout.  She had worked late to complete paperwork for a client. The fact that he said it in front of the team made it even better.  She was happy her boss had noticed.

But within a few hours the glow of the compliment had worn off.


Because her boss had given her the equivalent of a Facebook like.  It provides a quick hit of dopamine that fades in the face of the next challenge.

Noticing when your employees do a good job and telling them is certainly better than ignoring or criticizing them. But if you want to drive exceptional performance, and if you want your people to have internally-driven motivation, the twin engines you need are impact and specificity.

Let’s go back to our example above to illustrate.  Imagine Susan works in a bank; part of her job is processing loan paperwork.   When she completes the process quickly for a critical client, her boss tells her, “Good job.”

Susan feels seen and valued.  Again, it’s better than being ignored or belittled.

But does Susan fully understand the impact her work has on others? Does she have a model for replicating her behavior on tough days?  And most importantly, does Susan have an inner framework for driving success when her manager is not there to praise her?

Maybe. If Susan is an incredibly self-directed, purpose-driven high performer, she may not need anymore than ‘good job.’ But for most people good job is fleeting.

Here’s how four additional sentences turn “good job” into a something more powerful.  After saying good job, the manager says, “Susan, getting that paperwork over the line enabled us to close the loan for the client. That loan enabled our client to secure a new retail location and grow her business. Susan, every time you walk by that business, and you see that owner standing there welcoming her customers, I want you to think, I was part of making this happen. Your work sends a tremendously positive ripple throughout our organization and through our clients. ”

Describing the specific impact Susan has on the client gives Susan a model she can replicate. She has a mental picture of how her work created something meaningful for someone else. It fuels pride in her role that is not dependent on a manager noticing her.  She knows why her role matters and the impact she has when she does it well. And it’s only four sentences!

Human beings are hardwired to want to make a difference to others. Managers can feed that need by being specific about impact the work has on others. Paint a mental picture for your people.  Next time paperwork comes across their desk, they’ll know it’s attached to a real live person who needs their help.

The same principles hold true for giving negative feedback.  If someone fails to meet expectations, add specifics about the impact the less than stellar performance had had on others People are more motivated to improve when they know their actions are affecting others.

Most people want to do a good job.  When you show people how their work is positively affects others, it fills them with pride and gives them a model they can repeat.

Good job is nice. Telling people they made a difference is better.