Many years ago, I had a colleague who had a particular talent for giving frank, unembellished, on-the-spot feedback.

Immediately after a meeting --or sometimes even just midway through a one-on-one conversation with her --she would call a time-out to provide direct feedback on something I had just said or done.

While I listened politely and tried to absorb the lessons she was trying to impart, I nonetheless would usually feel uncomfortable with her professional but nonetheless confrontational approach. She was, after all, criticizing me, even if she was attempting to make it the constructive sort.

While I haven't met another colleague like her since (she moved on to pursue other endeavors several years ago), I have continued to work in an environment that is rich in feedback. And while some of it can be positive, in the spirit of professional development, some if it can be critical.

There's a movement afoot that says year-end performance reviews don't provide the frequency of feedback people require to understand and act on their professional development needs early enough. Provide regular, on-the-spot feedback, goes the thinking. 

While I ascribe to the idea that feedback should come far more frequently than once or twice per year, I think there's a built-in assumption that such feedback is largely about critical suggestions intended to correct a behavior or mindset. 

This approach, which I've observed in many corporate environments, is one I don't ascribe to. What if managers were to instead proactively seek out opportunities to praise their people even more often than they call out their weaknesses, mistakes, and development needs? What would be the impact on individual and team performance if people were made to feel like they were valued members of the company, and didn't always have to look over their shoulder to see if their boss or their boss's boss was waiting for them to slip up?

A recent article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and now a professor at New York University, tells the remarkable story of a woman who found a powerful alternative to critical feedback. Lena Rustin was a speech therapist specializing in helping stammering children. She founded the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering in London, named after the popular British actor whose father suffered a severe stammer.

Rabbi Sacks filmed Rustin's work for a documentary he made for BBC television on the state of the family in Britain. He also interviewed some of the parents whose children she worked with. In his article, he describes Rustin's unique approach to her work: "Most speech therapists focus on speaking and breathing techniques, and on the individual child...Lena did more. She focused on relationships and worked with parents, not just children. Her view was that to cure a stammer, she had to do more than help the child to speak fluently. She had to change the entire family environment."

"The answer, Lena discovered, was praise. She told the families that every day they must catch each member of the family doing something right and say so specifically, positively, and sincerely. Every member of the family, but especially the parents, had to learn to give and receive praise."

"Watching her at work I began to realize that she was creating, within each home, an atmosphere of mutual respect and continuous positive reinforcement. She believed that this would generate self-confidence --not just for the stammering child, but for all members of the family. The result would be an environment in which people felt safe to change and to help others do likewise."

Through his work filming Rustin, Rabbi Sacks realized she had discovered a solution not just for stammering, but for group dynamics as a whole. Writing a few years earlier about the same experience, Sacks told the story of how Rustin's approach helped resolve interpersonal issues with his film crew: "There had been tensions among the television crew with which I had been working. Various things had gone wrong and there was an atmosphere of mutual recrimination. After filming a session of Lena Rustin teaching parents how to give and receive praise, the crew started praising one another. Instantly the atmosphere was transformed. The tension dissolved, and filming became fun again. Praise gives people the confidence to let go of the negative aspects of their character and reach their full potential."

Published on: Apr 23, 2018
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