Positive Feedback and Our Ice Age Brains

By David Raphael

There is a joke I like to tell: What is the difference between a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist? A Jewish pessimist says: “Things are terrible, they can’t possibly get worse.” Says the Jewish optimist: “Things are terrible, but they can always get worse.” As Jews, we may feel that pessimism is deeply embedded into our collective consciousness. But the truth is that hyperawareness to danger is hard wired into all humans. Scientists speak of our “Ice Age Brains,” that are literally wired to be far more acutely alert to danger. Since the days when saber tooth tigers lurked behind every rock and bush, our fight or flight response has been essential for our survival. The vestige of this survival instinct is our “negativity bias” whereby even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than do neutral or positive things.

While Ice Age Brains and negativity bias were essential when, dressed in animal hides, we roamed the frozen tundra, it is of lesser value in the workplace. Few of us remember a compliment or positive feedback we may have received in the past weeks, but, chances are, many of us are stewing about a recent criticism or a less than stellar evaluation.

In marriages, researchers speak of the “Magic Ratio” where, as long as there was five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there was negative, the marriage was likely to be stable over time. Similar results have also been found in other essential relationships, for instance, between a boss and staff or a supervisor and supervisees.

Giving positive feedback to staff is an essential element of a healthy work environment. Saying, “nice job” is a good start, but supervisors can make their positive feedback far more effective and impactful.

A four-part framework is helpful in assessing and enhancing the quality of our positive feedback:

  • Passive and Destructive: The manager or supervisor ignores the event and appears dismissive. Think of a time when you or a colleague worked for hours and organized a highly successful event and the boss offered no acknowledgement.
  • Active and Destructive: In this scenario, the manager points out only the negatives (“The charoset at your 500-person Passover Seder was terrible”), steals the glory, or is actively dismissive of your success (“That was a great event, you couldn’t have done it without me”).
  • Passive and Constructive: A supervisor provides low energy or understated support for the effort (“Nice job on organizing the 150-person mission to Israel that raised $10 million. How do you like my new sports jacket?”)
  • Active and Constructive: Active and constructive feedback provides authentic, enthusiastic recognition and, additionally, utilizes the event to advance learning and professional growth for both the individual and the professional team. Such feedback allows the professional to savor her accomplishment, learn from it and share what she has learned with others.

When providing active and constructive feedback:

  • Indicate the elements of the individual’s efforts and performance that were stellar. “It was a great program, I was especially impressed with your efforts to engage diverse participants.”
  • Probe into the goals, strategies, and actions of the employee. “You did a marvelous job of recruiting individuals for this program. What was your strategy? What do you feel were the keys to your success?”
  • Provide opportunities for shared learning: “Barbara did a magnificent job on this fundraising drive, I’d like Barbara to brief the staff team to share her strategy.”

Well-constructed positive feedback provides multiple benefits for both individual staff members and the staff team. Staff who receive positive feedback will feel supported, empowered and, consequently, will be more highly motivated and engaged. If we are conscious of the “Magic Ratio,” staff retention is likely to improve. According to a popular saying “employees don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” As managers, our job is to see to it that the opposite is true as well; employees stay in our organizations because of the support, guidance and thoughtful feedback of effective managers.

David Raphael is a consultant focusing on nonprofit organizations. He is based in Atlanta, GA and can be reached at david@diraphael.net