How to Give Positive Feedback: A Crucial Leadership Skill

Positive FeedbackOnly 22% of employees feel they receive frequent, meaningful feedback from their managers (Gallup, 2022a).

More worryingly, 37% of managers feel uncomfortable or incapable of giving any feedback to their direct reports (Solomon, 2016).

While “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation” are upsetting industries worldwide, improving positive feedback is a simple yet powerful leadership skill that can help stimulate the best from your employees.

Spending a little time perusing this article, which shares tools and explains elements of positive feedback, will up your communication with your team and could make their day a little better and even a little more productive. Let’s get started.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others adopt positive leadership practices and help organizations thrive.

4 Benefits of Positive Feedback

Feedback in the work environment is a dialogue, an ongoing process embedded into the very heart of organizational culture, not a mere one-way performance appraisal twice a year. Organizations that champion a feedback-seeking culture enjoy improved employee performance (Evans & Dobrosielska, 2021).

Leaders differ in their feedback styles, with some using negative feedback and others using positive feedback. So which is more beneficial?

Negative feedback attempts to decrease specific behaviors or outcomes, often through punitive measures such as verbal admonishments (Choi et al., 2018). This approach can elicit negative emotional responses in individuals and can lead to worse performance, increased resistance, aggression, and withdrawal (Michael, 2004; Sidman, 1989).

Positive feedback, on the other hand, can be transformational. Positive feedback aims to increase desired behaviors and outcomes through positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise (Choi et al., 2018). This empowers employees and significantly predicts task performance (Evans & Dobrosielska, 2021), by providing an opportunity for professional growth (Ellison et al., 2022).

Beyond performance itself, positive feedback can enhance employee engagement, generate psychological safety, improve employee retention, and boost employee recognition. Below we explore these benefits in more detail.

1. Enhancing employee engagement

How do employers keep their workforce engaged and excited about their jobs?

Give them praise for the good work they do.

Praising and rewarding employees elicits a cascade of positive emotions, which can have a knock-on effect for motivation and employee engagement (Salanova et al., 2010). The statistics speak for themselves; employees who receive frequent positive feedback are four times more likely to be engaged than those who are not getting ongoing feedback (Gallup, 2023a).

A real-life example of the benefits of employee engagement, is the profound improvement made in the company Target, once Brian Cornell was appointed as CEO in 2014. Many of the changes he implemented targeted employee engagement, and Target became one of the most profitable United States companies (Target CEO, 2023).

2. Psychological safety

A core feature of psychological safety is a culture of feedback where leaders hold ongoing feedback dialogues between themselves and their team members (Clark, 2020).

This means leaders must listen, show appreciation, give praise, and seek feedback on their own leadership approach from their team. In doing so, a feedback culture will emerge where individuals feel safe to take risks and to be innovative (Edmondson & Scott, 2022).

3. Employee retention

A logical extension of employees feeling engaged and motivated is that they are more likely to stay in their jobs.

Given the research that feedback enhances engagement (Gallup, 2023a), and engagement improves employee retention rates (Tullar et al., 2016), leaders can be confident that providing positive feedback will have lasting positive implications for their workforce.

4. Employee recognition

Many positive feedback tactics involve recognizing employees’ efforts. In this vein, the more positive feedback a leader gives, the stronger a culture of positive recognition can be built, and employees will feel valued and appreciated for their endeavors.

Employee recognition has been touted as the most powerful new approach to job performance, satisfaction, and retention (Gallup, 2022b).

Evidently then, the benefits of engaging in positive feedback as a leader are wide reaching and have the potential to be long lasting too.

Key Elements of Effective Positive Feedback

Elements of positive feedbackSo, positive feedback is good for employees and teams, but what do leaders need to do to deliver positive feedback effectively?

Below, we outline some of the building blocks required, and provide practical tips to get any leader up and running with positive feedback.

1. Reinforcing positive principles

How do leaders promote a positive working environment and motivate their teams? One key pathway is to reinforce positive aspects of your teams by cocreating and upholding shared values and boosting positive emotions through direct praise.

Also, focus on your employees strengths by engaging in strengths-based development and feedback conversations, which we will discuss below.

2. Effective communication

Leaders cannot be successful in delivering feedback if they are not equipped with effective communication skills. This means learning how to listen actively, to respond appreciatively, and to ask good questions.

Beyond this, leaders can adopt a person-centered approach to communication. an ethos proposed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1995).

This approach comprises three core components (Rogers, 1995):

  • Empathy
    Leaders should tap into empathy and show they care and value their employees by reflecting back on what an employee has said.
  • Congruence
    Leaders should be authentically themselves, open and transparent, and endeavor to deliver feedback in a congruent manner.
  • Respect
    Leaders should show unconditional positive regard to their employees by providing a safe space to share feedback.

3. Constructive criticism

Scientific definitions of feedback tend to focus on the binary of positive versus negative. This leaves little room for reflection on how leaders can deliver critical or constructive feedback.

One approach to delivering constructive criticism is to lean into radical candor (Scott, 2017). The whole point of radical candor is that empathy and critique don’t have to be opposing forces. Indeed, to access radical candor, leaders must be both kind and helpful in their feedback by giving praise, encouragement, specific guidance, and critical reflections.

If leaders can build some of these foundational skills, they will be better placed to engage in positive feedback with their teams and unlock numerous benefits.

Download 3 Free Positive Leadership Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others to adopt positive leadership practices to help individuals, teams and organizations to thrive.

Overcoming Challenges in Giving Feedback

Now all the above might sound straightforward enough. But the reality is that feedback is hard to give, and it is even harder to deliver successfully.

In a survey by Zenger and Folkman (2017), 44% of managers agreed that feedback is stressful or difficult. Surprisingly, while managers often shy away from giving criticism (21%), leaders avoid giving praise even more than criticism (37%). It appears then that some leaders are afraid to give feedback — whether it’s good or bad.

Leaders may feel under-prepared or under-skilled to deliver feedback effectively. As such, providing leaders with comprehensive training in empathy and communication skills should be a key priority for organizations.

Without such training, feedback could be received badly particularly if the relationship between the feedback giver and receiver is strained. Work relationships play a huge role in promoting positive feedback. Therefore, it is vital that leaders take the time to build warm and trusting relationships with their team members and provide a safe space where feedback can be received.

Another challenge to giving feedback is leader self-awareness, or a lack thereof. Leaders might fall into one of the other three approaches to giving feedback as outlined by Kim Scott (2017) in the radical candor feedback model:

1. Obnoxious aggression

This approach is where leaders can be mean or hurtful in the delivery and/or content of the feedback, and yet there might be some helpful guidance within it. Obnoxious aggression could also be thought of as brutal honesty. Sometimes leaders might mask their rudeness (or lack of empathy) as just being honest, but this can have deleterious effects on performance.

2. Ruinous empathy

This approach is “nice” but ultimately unhelpful or even damaging. It’s seeing a problem but saying nothing. Being empathetic but non-challenging does no one a service, as it prevents individuals from learning and growing.

In the worst-case scenarios, without constructive feedback, individuals can end up having negative work appraisals without having had any opportunity to course correct.

3. Manipulative insincerity

This approach is the ultimate no-go, when leaders provide feedback that lacks both empathy and challenge. This type of feedback is ultimately mean spirited and is indirect because it lacks honesty and integrity. With this approach, leaders do not have their employees’ best interests at heart.

To avoid falling into the above categories, leaders must be purposeful in first identifying their current feedback approach and then taking action to move toward radical candor. Below, we offer several tools to help with this.

Tools for Developing and Improving Feedback Skills

Feedback skillsDelivering feedback is a skill that must be developed; it will not happen organically.

So leaders must be proactive in building the necessary competencies. Below, we point to tools and exercises that can be used by leaders looking to upskill.

Johari window

The Johari window is a quick and effective reflection exercise for bringing attention to how individuals communicate with others and how they behave.

The idea here is to explore the elements of the self that are in full awareness and to enlist the help of team members to identify the elements of the self that are not in one’s conscious awareness.

Emotional intelligence

Developing self-awareness is also important for responding to feedback. Leaders must understand their own reactions to hard conversations and difficult feedback and become adept at reading and managing emotional reactivity of others.

Leaders can use emotional intelligence toolkits that include exercises and assessments that help bring awareness to their patterns of responding.

Strengths-based feedback conversations

Strengths are a key way to develop feedback skills. By using strength questionnaires, such as CliftonStrengths (Gallup, 2023b), leaders and employees can gain knowledge of their inherent talents.

When it comes to feedback, these strengths can be harnessed in development conversations in terms of the content of the conversation, such as how to get the most out of one’s strengths and in terms of using your strengths to deliver feedback. For more information, check out Gallup’s work on how to lead with strengths.

3 Must-Read Books

The following books by big hitters in the business and academic worlds provide leaders with a wealth of knowledge and practical advice on how to approach and deliver feedback for better performing teams.

1. Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean – Kim Scott

Radical Candor

This is not the first time I have recommended Kim Scott’s Radical Candor, nor will it be the last! This is an excellent all-round leadership book. Its thesis centers firmly around how to deliver effective feedback in order to get the very best from your teams.

The book emphasizes the importance of good relationships between leaders and team members and provides actionable insights to help leaders tap into empathy and challenge.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Positive Leadership in Practice: A Model for Our Future – Cornelia Lucey and Jolanta Burke

Positive Leadership in Practice

For those who enjoy more of an academic read — and one with practical solutions embedded throughout — this book by Cornelia Lucey and Jolanta Burke is a must-have.

The authors draw upon research and expertise to propose their own model of positive leadership (the ALIGHT model) to help leaders transform themselves and their teams.

Within this text, the authors outline strategies of how to apply principles of positive leadership in the workplace, including suggestions for topics such as positive communication.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well – Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Thanks for the Feedback

Our last book of the bunch takes a different approach from other feedback books by focusing on the recipient of feedback rather than the giver.

Earlier we mentioned that feedback is a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way process. As such, Thanks for the Feedback, provides novel insight into how individuals (and leaders) can open themselves up to feedback.

The book explores the tension between our desire to learn and grow as individuals and the desire to be accepted as we are in the moment. It provides the reader with practical advice on how to use feedback in order to flourish.

Find the book on Amazon.

3 Brilliant TED Talks

There are stellar TED talks that explore feedback and the necessary skills required to deliver effective feedback in the workplace. We picked the top three for you to enjoy.

How to deal with radical candor - Kim Scott

In this TED talk, Kim Scott uses a personal experience of her own to highlight the damaging effects of leading and giving feedback from a place of ruinous empathy — the feedback category leaders are most likely to fall into — where leaders care deeply but struggle to be as direct as they need to be.

The secret to giving great feedback - Leeann Renninger

Cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renninger outlines in this TED talk why feedback often falls into one of two camps, neither of which are cognitively helpful for learning and development.

Renninger goes on to propose a four-part formula (derived from years of research) that enables leaders to deliver feedback well, including feedback that involves challenging or difficult content.

The power of listening - William Ury

This TED talk by William Ury illustrates the power of truly listening to understand. Proper listening is a key pillar for leading and is crucial for any leader who wishes to deliver feedback successfully.

A leader can come to a feedback or development conversation with a prepared set of questions, but it’s the leader’s ability to listen to the answers and get to the root of the issue that makes the difference.

Resources From

For leaders looking to take up positive feedback principles, below we explore a few useful and practical tools that can be of help.

Recommended reading


Telling an Empathy Story

In our worksheet Telling an Empathy Story, individuals are given the opportunity to engage in perspective taking, a key tool for building empathy, by telling someone else’s story.

Individuals first identify a story and choose a medium through which to tell the story, before sharing the story with another and asking them to reflect on what they felt and what emotions they observed within the story. We recommend asking for permission from the individual who owns the story before embarking on this activity.

The REBT Problem Formulation

This worksheet aims to provide individuals with the space to reflect on how they emotionally respond to situations in order to build self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

The exercise asks individuals to name an event and the emotions it evoked, identify any problematic behaviors it gave rise to, and then outline a healthier alternative response. Leaders should find that as a result they are able to respond in a more positive and adaptive manner in the future.

Strengths in Challenging Times

We have touched upon the importance of amplifying positive principles for positive feedback, particularly by leaning into strengths as a leader and helping team members identify and develop their strengths too.

This exercise asks individuals to think about how they can use their strengths during challenging situations. For leaders, this might come in handy before having to hold a difficult conversation or before delivering critical feedback.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop positive leadership skills, check out this collection of 17 validated positive leadership exercises. Use them to equip leaders with the skills needed to cultivate a culture of positivity and resilience.

17 Exercises To Build Positive Leaders

Use these 17 Positive Leadership Exercises [PDF] to help others inspire, motivate, and guide employees in ways that enrich workplace performance and satisfaction.
Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

A Take-Home Message

So, we’ve learned that praise is good!

Leaders should not shy away from delivering positive feedback. Simultaneously, leaders should avoid falling into the trap of ruinous empathy — being overly nice but offering no real guidance or feedback of value.

For leaders to truly get the best from their team members, a feedback culture is required, where leaders give regular, challenging feedback. Doing so takes mastery of several important leadership skills, including positive communication, emotional intelligence, and perspective taking.

Organizations should seek to upskill their leaders in these areas and reap the many benefits that will follow.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

According to Gallup (2022a), the best positive feedback is feedback that is frequent, future oriented, and focused. This kind of feedback should help individuals thrive and excel in their job roles.

Always focus your feedback on a specific behavior or situation rather than leveling criticism at an individual’s character. A helpful professional model that can be used is the situation–behavior–impact model of feedback (Center for Creative Leadership, 2023). This model helps leaders to be specific and non-personal in their feedback:

  • Situation: Describe the situation/circumstances at hand.
  • Behavior: What was the behavior observed?
  • Impact: What impact did the behavior have (on task, others, etc.)?
  • Explore: Conduct an open-ended conversation on how the individual feels they did.
  • Center for Creative Leadership. (2023). Use Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI)™ to understand intent.
  • Choi, E., Johnson, D. A., Moon, K., & Oah, S. (2018). Effects of positive and negative feedback sequence on work performance and emotional responses. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 38(2–3), 97–115.
  • Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler.
  • Edmondson, A. C., & Scott, K. (2022). Follow these 4 steps to create psychological safety in your teams. Fast Company. Retrieved September 8, 2023, from
  • Ellison, L. J., Steelman, L. A., Young, S. F., & Riordan, B. G. (2022). Setting the stage: Feedback environment improves outcomes for a 360-degree-feedback leader-development program. Consulting Psychology Journal, 74(4), 363–382.
  • Evans, T. R., & Dobrosielska, A. (2021). Feedback-seeking culture moderates the relationship between positive feedback and task performance. Current Psychology, 40(7), 3401–3408.
  • Gallup. (2022a). How fast feedback fuels performance.
  • Gallup. (2022b). Unleashing the human element at work: Transforming workplaces through recognition report. Retrieved August 20, 2023, from
  • Gallup. (2023a). State of the global workplace 2023 report: The voice of the world’s employees.
  • Gallup. (2023b). CliftonStrengths.
  • Michael, J. (2004). Concepts and principles of behavior analysis (2nd ed.). Association for Behavior Analysis International.
  • Rogers, C. R. (1995). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Salanova, M., Schaufeli, W. B., Xanthopoulou, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2010). The gain spiral of resources and work engagement: Sustaining a positive worklife. In A. B. Bakker (Ed.) & M. P. Leiter, Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research (pp. 118–131). Psychology Press.
  • Scott, K. M. (2017). Radical candor: How to get what you want by saying what you mean. Macmillan.
  • Sidman, M. (1989). Coercion and its fallout. Authors Cooperative.
  • Solomon, L. (2016). Two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable communicating with employees. Harvard Business Review.
  • Target CEO (2023, May 17). DEI has fueled much of our growth over the last 9 years. Fortune. Retrieved August 20, 2023, from
  • Tullar, J. M., Amick III, B. C., Brewer, S., Diamond, P. M., Kelder, S. H., & Mikhail, O. (2016). Improve employee engagement to retain your workforce. Health Care Management Review, 41(4), 316–324.
  • Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2017). Why do so many managers avoid giving praise? Harvard Business Review.

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