Paulie Rojas isn’t your conventional executive consultant and speaking coach. She began her career as an award-winning actress, booking network TV shows, national commercials, plays, films, and even producing her own projects.
But her interests had always spanned into how emotion and human connection tend to get left out of business discussions, a subject her father understood well from years of work at McKinsey and Gallup. She’s since taken her expertise off camera and stage, moving from Los Angeles to New York to launch The Public Speaking Pro, and now helps executives, managers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs better communicate, lead, and motivate.
The notion that executives mostly need help curtailing sharp tongues and mean streaks is a myth. In fact, Rojas spends significant time focused on helping people give better compliments. Studies have shown employees value workplace culture and happiness over salary, and positive feedback and reinforcement are crucial to creating an environment where employees are happy, engaged, and loyal.
In this interview, Rojas explains how she helps clients optimize one-on-ones, drive culture, and move past their personal discomfort giving positive feedback. She also details how to ensure positive reinforcement doesn’t come off as disingenuous, and how your ability to receive feedback may affect your ability to give it.
Positive reinforcement drives culture and performance
We’ve come a long way since Daniel Kahneman struggled to explain to an Israeli fighter-pilot instructor why trainees performed worse after earning compliments and better after punishment (the answer is regression to the mean). A growing body of organizational psychology research shows feedback is one of the most impactful ways to help support employees’ long-term success, and one of the easiest ways for managers to foster a sense of learning, happiness, and growth amongst their team. Regular updates on individual and business performance makes direct reports feel valued and invested, helps build confidence, and has dramatic benefits for employers’ bottom lines.
67% of employees who strongly agree their manager focuses on their strengths are fully engaged at work, compared with only 31% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.
According to Rojas, “communicating confidence and trust in a person leads to greater work ethic, inspiration, loyalty, creativity, and productivity.” She referenced a 2015 Gallup survey, which found that 67% of employees who strongly agree their manager focuses on their strengths are fully engaged at work, compared to only 2% of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.
Best of all, positive feedback is contagious. Recipients offer nearly six times more peer-to-peer feedback than on average teams. According to Rojas, “effectively and authentically validating a person is a great way to steer a person into getting the results you want… Or getting more of that positive behavior.”
Avoiding pitfalls of giving positive feedback
Despite these findings, many managers feel their core responsibility is to give bad news and correct direct reports’ mistakes, and that positive reinforcement isn’t a requirement. A Zenger Folkman analysis of nearly 5,200 managers’ self-assessments showed that managers who exclusively gave negative feedback viewed themselves as far more effective than managers who were only positive.
Positive reinforcement seems as easy as a compliment and pat on the back, but Rojas sees countless cases where good work is glazed over, along with clients whose complimentary feedback lacks the substance and context required to serve as a building block for future success. She offered a few final thoughts to help managers maximize their positive feedback.
Remember, your goal is guidance
The most important thing a boss or manager can do is focus on guidance - guiding a team through projects, successes and failures, and preparing employees for future opportunities and responsibilities within the company. Sometimes this will require addressing areas of improvement, but it also requires acknowledging the good and explaining how a direct report can build off it. Failure to address employee’s strengths is a disservice to yourself and your company.
A manager’s responsibility is as much about getting direct reports to do great work as it is making sure they feel great about their work. Context-focused feedback fosters a sense of purpose that both elates and motivates. “The key to an effective complement is in the specificity,” Rojas says. Specific positive feedback also shows a level of thought and genuine care that a generic ‘good job’ or soundbite of small talk doesn’t. It’s foundational to building trust and a stronger relationship that can have lasting business value.
Typical feedback: Great presentation, Mary!
Better feedback: Great presentation, Mary! You made the team look very professional and the client is confident they're in great hands.
What’s the difference: Everyone needs a mix of recognition, appreciation, and validation. The challenge for managers is adjusting genuine, well-placed compliments to their personalities of their direct reports. Be cognizant of where, when, and how you deliver this message - toasting champagne for the office introvert may do more harm than good.
Zoom in, and out
Rojas recommends breaking down compliments into two parts: the action that is praiseworthy, and the bigger picture effect it had. Failure to provide context to how a behavior helps the business’ larger initiatives means your direct report may limit their goals to making you happy, rather than thinking about their maximum organizational impact. This might sound convenient or ideal in the short term but will stunt their long-term development.
Help yourself first
To give effective positive (or negative) feedback, managers need to “be aware of how we feel about giving feedback and how others respond to us when receiving.” For managers who dread giving feedback, this may require introspection into what causes that dread, whether it’s an assumption of the worst (conflict, tears, drama, etc.) or projecting a personal dislike for receiving feedback.
Radical Candor author Kim Malone Scott equates this need to when airlines recommend putting your oxygen mask on before helping others. “You can’t possibly give a damn about other people if you don’t give a damn about yourself,” she says in a First Round Review interview. For Rojas, this means continuing to train in theatre and putting herself on the other side of a critique. By understanding how she feels under review and scrutiny, she can can better help her clients. It also helps her stay grounded and balanced in times of high stress and demand.