The Vital Role of Positive Feedback as a Leadership Strength

February 3, 2022

The Manager’s Perspective

I am about to show you that most managers have some mistaken beliefs about the best kind of feedback to give their direct reports. In a survey we shared on Harvard Business Review of 7,631 managers, my colleague Joe Folkman and I asked whether they believed that giving negative feedback was stressful or difficult, and 44% agreed. When talking with managers about giving feedback, we often hear comments such as, “I did not sleep the night before,” “I just wanted to get it over quickly,” “My hands were sweating, and I was nervous,” and “They don’t pay me enough to do this job.” This result was not surprising to us. But it is not only negative feedback that gives managers pause. A surprisingly large number of managers resist giving their direct reports any kind of positive or negative feedback at all.

Feedback Preferences:

We created a self-assessment that measured the following:

  • Whether managers avoided or gave any kind of feedback to their colleagues, and
  • Their preference for giving positive or negative feedback.

The assessment used 20 paired comparison items to measure managers’ comfort or aversion to giving positive or negative feedback.

The table below shows the results of this assessment on 7,808 people. Keep in mind that positive feedback refers to reinforcing comments, kudos, compliments, and general praise. Negative feedback is defined as redirecting and corrective suggestions that correct mistakes or suggest new actions the employee should undertake.

  Avoids Neutral Gives
Positive Feedback 37% 20% 44%
Negative Feedback 21% 16% 63%

Given the anxiety nearly half of leaders have about giving negative feedback, it surprised us to find that an even higher percentage of people avoided giving positive feedback (37%) than negative feedback (21%). We can only conclude that many managers feel that it’s their job to tell their direct reports bad news and correct them when they make a mistake, but that taking the time to provide positive feedback is optional.

Self-Ratings And Effectiveness In Giving Feedback

We also asked each participant to rate themselves on their effectiveness at giving others honest feedback. The chart below shows the percentage that agreed with the statement, “I would rate myself as highly effective at providing others with honest, straightforward feedback.” We created the bars by using the two scales, “gives positive and gives negative feedback,” and indicating the “tendency to avoid or give such feedback.” It’s clear from the percentages that those who indicated a preference for giving negative feedback felt they were effective at giving others honest, straightforward feedback. Self-ratings appear to be largely driven by the leader’s comfort with giving negative feedback. Unfortunately, this is an erroneous conclusion. Giving only negative feedback diminishes a leader’s effectiveness in the eyes of others and does not have the effect they believe it has.

The Vital Role of Positive Feedback as a Leadership Strength

The Recipients Point Of View

How would those who work for and with these people experience their practice of giving positive or negative feedback? We compared 328 managers’ 360-degree feedback assessments with results from their self-assessment instrument that measured their preference for giving positive or negative feedback. In the 360 assessment, an average of 13 respondents were asked to evaluate their leader’s behavior “Gives honest feedback in a helpful way.”

This analysis provided us with some surprising and counter-intuitive data. The recipients gave high scores to leaders who freely gave positive reinforcement. Giving or not giving corrective feedback did not make a big difference unless the leader avoided giving positive feedback.

Similarly, the direct reports’ reactions to the managers who gave positive reinforcement were not highly affected by whether or not the leader accompanied the positive reinforcement with negative or corrective feedback. The key was the manager’s desire to give positive feedback. (Note that this is entirely contrary to what the leader believes.)

The Vital Role of Positive Feedback as a Leadership Strength

In the graph above, the numbers in parenthesis represent the number of managers in each cell. Given the fact that we were sub-dividing the group, these numbers would ideally be larger. The results are statistically significant, and we are comfortable with our conclusions.

Effectiveness In Developing Direct Reports

After examining these results, we looked at the broader competency of “Developing Others.” In these results, we found the same trend (see the graph below). We then looked at a rating of overall leadership effectiveness. Again, we found a very similar trend.

The Vital Role of Positive Feedback as a Leadership Strength

Effectiveness in developing others hinges squarely on the leader’s comfort and willingness to provide positive feedback to the direct reports. Giving corrective or negative feedback (or not) makes little difference if there is a clear presence of positive feedback from the leader.


Leaders obviously carry some incorrect beliefs about the value and benefits of different forms of feedback. They vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement. Conversely, they greatly overestimate the value and benefit of negative or corrective feedback. In all, they misjudge the impact negative feedback has on how they are perceived by their direct reports.

—Jack Zenger
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedInTwitter, and Facebook.

(This article first appeared on Forbes)