Feedback Culture Series: The Magic of Reinforcing Feedback

Culture of Feedback

“Can I give you some feedback?”

For many of us, that is one of the scariest phrases we can hear at work.

But what if giving and receiving feedback didn’t have to be scary? What if feedback could, in fact, contribute to an environment of trust and effectiveness? The ability to openly and successfully exchange feedback in an organization is one hallmark of a strong culture.

When hearing the word “feedback,” redirecting feedback, which addresses ineffective behavior or performance, is likely the first thing that comes to mind. However, studies have shown that reinforcing feedback, which recognizes and encourages good behavior, should be given more often than redirecting—five times more often, in fact.

This “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 started with marriage research conducted by Dr. John Gottman. His studies showed that successful marriages have 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction during conflict. A separate study identified that the same praise-to-criticism ratio was present in the highest performing corporate teams.

So, what exactly is it about positive feedback that contributes to an effective workplace?

A healthy exchange of positive feedback creates an ecosystem of trust. When there’s a consistent flow of reinforcing feedback given between team members, you begin to realize that everyone has one another’s best interest in mind. This continuous build-up of trust and goodwill enables teams to assume good intent when conflict does arise, helping teammates maintain a collaborative focus through the terrain of problem-solving and disagreement.

Additionally, when reinforcing feedback lets a person know specifically what they did right in a project or interaction, the positive actions are more easily repeatable.

Say you’re working with a teammate, Suhani, on a project. Before sending a document to a client, Suhani reads over it, catching and correcting several errors. You tell Suhani, “Thank you for taking the initiative to review that document before it went to our client. By fixing those errors, you made sure we looked credible. I feel confident things are client-ready after you’ve reviewed them.” By giving Suhani this specific feedback, she knows exactly why her behavior was helpful, and she’s likely to remember your comment and repeat the desired behavior the next time she’s reviewing a document.

To help navigate giving effective reinforcing feedback, here are a few examples of how to take vague comments and make them more specific:


Of course, while we wish that all feedback could be an exchange of positivity, in high-performing teams there are moments that call for redirecting feedback as well. In our next article in this series, we’ll talk about giving this feedback: how to prepare and how to deliver it.  

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