If you knew that focusing on one thing in your organization would lead to detachment, disconnection and reduced performance, then why the hell would you build whole systems around it? It just sounds crazy doesn’t it, and yet this is what most organizations have done through the establishment of their formalised complaints management systems.
But what about the corollary. If you knew there was something you could do to build a person’s skills and performance, and at the same time send ripples of positivity across the whole organization, why on earth wouldn’t you do it? This is the benefit that positive feedback can have in an organisation. And yet I don’t know personally of any leadership team who commits resources to harnessing the power of positive feedback in their organizations. There may be a minefield of uplifting and motivating material in their inbox, but it is largely ignored.
“It’s a sad fact of customer service that while complaints get logged, formalized and circulated, compliments and thanks are often just briefly expressed to one individual before disappearing off into the ether, never to be acknowledged again. It’s a shame, because for many customer service professionals these are the moments that make the job rewarding.”
Is it just me, or does this seem downright cruel? Unintentionally so, but nevertheless, in my opinion the disregard for positive feedback (and the focus placed on complaints) is cruel.
A Focus on Complaints Creates A Downward Spiral
The 2015 study by Kipfelsberger, Bruch and Herhausen showed that a focus on negative feedback (including complaints, expressions of anger, frustration, or dissatisfaction) leads to a downward spiral of detachment, disconnection, reduced individual performance, reduced organisational performance and ultimately organisational exhaustion.
The Cascading Effects of Negative Feedback
So, while some attention on complaints is required for customer loyalty and to address needed areas of improvement, focusing exclusively on complaints takes its toll on employees. The research shows though that negative feedback also influences the entire organisation.
Customer feedback affects all employees, even those without direct customer contact. And the singular focus on customer complaints impacts the wider ‘health’ of the organisation.
A Balance with Compliments Creates An Energising Upward Spiral
However, those organisations who make a concerted effort to balance the management of compliments and complaints are more likely to meet their objectives, thrive and grow, and have greater employee satisfaction, safety and engagement. In fact, those businesses proactively sharing compliments are almost twice as likely to be successful.
The Energising Cycle of Positive Feedback
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The effect of positive feedback on people is quite substantial, affecting both their lives at work, and their broader sense of wellbeing. It has been shown that just one piece of positive feedback, (be it a customer compliment, praise, expressions of joy, gratitude, or satisfaction) directly contributes to improving a person’s skill or performance not just on that specific task, but on other similar tasks as well.
Even more importantly, complaint management was not found to be correlated with business success, but compliment management is.
What Is Holding People Back From Positive Feedback?
I do have faith that the majority of our leaders have a heart and know inherently the value of praising and complimenting the great work they see around them. I am also optimistic enough to think that they do want to bring more positivity and humanity to their organizations. So what is holding people back from embedding systems for compliments in their organisations? From my research I believe it is a combination of:
Lack of formal expectation
For both public and private sector organisations, there are legislative obligations and standards of complaints management. For example, in Queensland, section 219A of the Public Service Act (2008, Qld) requires public sector agencies to have a complaints management system in place. There is also an Australian Standard for Complaints Management in Organisations (AS/NZS 10002:2014). Many organisations do have a natural focus on meeting compliance obligations, and so do follow these mandated and standard practices for complaints management. A wealth of resources is provided to gather, manage and resolve complaints, and formal policies and processes are embedded across the organisation. However, there is not the same formal legal structure or expected standards around the management of compliments as there is for complaints. Organisations have the freedom to do what choose with these, and therefore processes around compliment management really depend generally on organisational culture and on specific strategic and operational goals. Without external expectations weighing upon them, there is little momentum to invest in the same infrastructure for positive feedback.
A concern it may encourage bending the rules
Interestingly, many people assume that to get a compliment, staff need to bend the rules and not adhere to policies and procedures. However my research has shown that a large majority of the compliments result from processes and values that are not only followed but exceeded in terms of rigor and thoroughness. While there is no statistical evidence as yet, this relationship between compliments and processes would counter this argument for placing more focus on positive feedback.
A concern that people will slack off
One of the concerns that managers have about putting an emphasis on compliments is that they fear that positive feedback will result in complacency and the staff involved will ‘rest on their laurels’. The concern here is that compliments and positive feedback will impede the ability to improve performance and make changes necessary to meet changing customer needs. However, as shown above, this is not the case, and in fact the opposite is true. Well-targeted and genuine compliments actually serve to improve skills and performance across a range of tasks. In addition, the increased job satisfaction makes it more likely that the employee will engage with business transformations which will continue to enhance customer service.
A greater care for their customers than their staff
Yes, I said it. It may appear like a controversial statement, but in reality, money is put towards the things that the organisation really cares about. By concentrating on complaints it inherently suggests that the organisation cares more about what the staff are doing wrong than right. It is putting the customers need to be heard above the employees need to feel valued and supported. Fair enough, customer complaints are more likely to end up on the front page of the newspaper and cause embarrassment if not dealt with well. But isn’t the mental health and wellbeing of your employees just as important? So many strategic plans declare that ‘our people are our most important assets.’ And yet, most of the organisational resources go to filing complaints against them, and very little to improving their performance and sense of self-worth.
They don’t know how to go about it
While there are clear legislative obligations and Australian standards for managing complaints, there is very little guidance out there for how to deal systematically with positive feedback. The good news is, thanks to the research conducted in 2015, there is a logical and staged method for embedding positive feedback within your organisation.
Very simply three stages of compliment management are:
1. Stimulation — how customers are encouraged or supported to identify things they appreciate.
2. Systemisation — the clear and formal responsibilities, policies, and systems in place for stimulating and disseminating positive feedback.
3. Distribution — how positive feedback is shared with the relevant staff and amplified across the organisation more broadly.
Stay tuned for more information about the positive feedback process in the next article.
Until then, if you needed the evidence to prove that positive feedback can help shift the culture of your organization — well here it is. And if you wanted to find a way to truly value and support your people — here it is.
 Kipfelsber P., Bruch H. and Herhausen D. 2015. Energizing Companies through Customer Compliments. Marketing Review St Gallen. Vol 1.
 Rath, T. and Clifton, D. The Power of Praise and Recognition. Gallup. 2004.The