Feedback: The Art of Balancing

I met former Marine Sergeant the last adventure trip that my son and I went on to West Virginia.  He and his daughter were avid rock climbers and through discussion he discovered that we were going to be bouldering, but not rock climbing because we didn't have the gear to climb.  He immediately invited us to climb with he and his daughter the following day; we definitely took him up on it.  He let us use his gear and so I put the harness on, the shoes and then listened as he reminded me of how the carabiners and rope all worked.  I locked in and then looked at him and said "climbing" and he looked back at me and said "belaying".  I turned to the 70' wall, looked up at it to strategize on the path that I would take, lifted my foot and hand to the first foothold and handhold and off I went.  I felt confident because as I climbed, the Sergeant took the slack out of the line and I knew that if I fell the rope that he was belaying would stop my fall.  I trusted him.  I trusted him, but even more I trusted the rope to be there for me when and if I fell.  What was the outcome?  I felt confident that I could make the climb.  I reached out quickly and even took risks that I wouldn't have even thought of if I was climbing without a rope.  The outcome was that I reached the top of the wall and felt a feeling of exhilaration wanting now to take on a 100' wall.  It was an amazing feeling.  One I wanted again and one that I began to reflect upon as I have been thinking about how we instill the same confidence in our team members at work or our families at home.  I believe that if we can do that, then we will provide the same opportunity for them to reach the intrinsic feelings that I did when I reached the top of the wall and even those challenges on my journey to the top.

I truly believe in providing feedback and you can review a previous series I wrote on feedback to gain my thoughts on it, but I have discovered that there has to be a limit on the quantity of negative as compared to positive feedback.  Why?  I seriously asked myself this when I began reflecting on these thoughts.  I ran my thoughts by a friend of mine, Suzy, and we talked through it and discovered a concept that I think makes a lot of sense.  At the bottom of that 70' wall, I looked at the Sergeant, who I had seen successfully belay his daughter just prior to me climbing up the wall; I knew he had the skill to belay me and I had an instant deep bond of trust with him when I found out he was a fellow Marine.  I also looked at the rope that was new and not frayed in any way and knew it had just been used and should hold my weight.  I knew in my heart that both the Sergeant and the rope were committed to me climbing on the wall and ensuring that I did not fall.  They weren't, however, committed that I would make it to the top, but I believed they were committed to never leave me until I unlocked myself from the rope.  I believed... 

I thought about that and thought that I had a relationship similar to this; it is my marriage.  Nicki, my wife, and I looked at each other 23 years ago and stated that we were committed 100% to each other.  We fully believe that will never leave each other till the day that one of us dies.  I trust her and she trusts me.  I make this statement from the heart, but I need to let you know that this has not been easy over those years as we have endured some big challenges. However, I know in my heart that our relationship is convenantal and based on beliefs we hold in our lives and hearts that are foundational.  Nicki and I can give each other feedback that is sometimes very hard to hear, but we are able to because we know that we will never leave each other.  We are fully committed and we know it.  I believe we could probably just give each other more negative feedback than positive and still be ok, but I don't think it would be healthy and wouldn't help our relationship to grow.  

“...all leaders should be aware of the ratio of positive and negative comments made by their colleagues in leadership team meetings, and endeavor to move the proportion closer to the ideal of 5.6 to 1 “
— Zenger and Folkman

So this left my friend and I discussing this convenantal committment concept and how it could or couldn't work in the work environment with our team members.  Again, I still believe in feedback, but the question is, "Is there a depth or an amount of feedback that we have to stay within to not instill fear or insecurity or that will ultimately change who a person is because we can't say to those individuals that work for us that we are fully committed to them; that we will never leave them?"  As I have reflected on this for a few months now, I do believe there is a depth or an amount of feedback of some sort, but I don't know what that is. I read an article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review ( that states that the ideal amount of positive to negative feedback is 5.6 to 1.  They go on to state that "Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity. Perhaps that’s why we have found with the vast majority of the leaders in our database, who have no outstanding weaknesses, that positive feedback is what motivates them to continued improvement. "

If I had been at the bottom of that wall and gained feedback from the Sergeant or if the rope could have spoken and said that I had flaws in my climbing skills or my physique, I would have been a bit more insecure when I began to climb, probably would not have taken the risks I took and when and if I reached the top, I would not have felt the same exhilaration that I felt when I was confident in the climb. I believe it would also have taken much longer for me to make that climb as well.  

So my question is, when do we challenge our employees and when do we affirm them. When is too much challenging feedback?  How much encouragement of their strengths do we give versus giving them critical feedback.  Feedback with the ultimate goal to give them confidence that will inspire them to perform to the top of their ability and with a feeling that they can take risks and know that they are safe?

Leverage off of "the power of belief" to dive deeper into the statement "I believe in you" and take it a step further to "I am committed to you"...I'm not letting you off easy.  We...we have some work to do, but together we are going to grow.  Do you or have you said this to your wife, kids or to those you your organization.  Is this the culture you are building in your organization.  It is so important for your people to know that they are not perfect and for you to give them good feedback to grow them, but I think it is equally important and to be a follow on to that feedback with a statement that you believe in them and that you are committed to them.  

It is amazing how far you are willing to go just because someone believes in you
— Unknown

Why?  Without it and with only negative feedback, it can leave them in a state of feeling like a failure, like you are going to leave them...alone.  With a statement of believing and committing, you are inspiring them and they know that they are ok...they have work to do, but they are ok.  AND...they know that you are going to be there for them to lean on.  

Here are four actions that I believe will take those you lead to a new level of commitment and contribution.

1. Communicate that you believe in each person you have the opportunity to lead

2. Mutually agree to the fact that the only way for both of you to grow is for you to affirm and challenge them and them, you.  Let them know you want feedback from them as well.

3. Intentionally track the amount of positive and negative feedback you give to each person

4. In your one-on-one weekly meetings, ask them how they are feeling about the feedback and adjust as necessary to ensure you are inspiring them and not creating an environment of fear

I would love to gain your feedback and thoughts in the comments section below on the balance of positive and negative feedback that you give to those you have the opportunity to lead.  What do you use for a guide?  How do your team members, spouse or kids know that you believe and are committed to them?