How To Improve Employee Performance Without Constructive Criticism

How to give effective performance feedback at work: Don't

When individuals develop habits that disrupt performance or culture, leaders are responsible for restoring productivity and unity. The most common tool managers use is correction through verbal feedback—telling someone how they need to improve—which can be effective when done properly.

But verbal feedback is tricky: it risks damaging the trust and psychological safety of the team, and the skills required to pull it off are rarer than you might expect.

There is no method for giving verbal feedback that works every time, for every person, in every situation. On the contrary, even the most carefully crafted message can backfire by generating frustration and resentment, making matters worse. It’s no wonder that giving corrective feedback is among any leader’s most dreaded and emotionally taxing duties.

Because of those downsides, even experienced VPs and CEOs regularly postpone difficult feedback conversations or avoid them altogether, leaving behavioral problems unresolved. This creates a lose-lose situation. If they happen at all, poorly executed conversations leave team members feeling demoralized, unsure about their objectives, and afraid of future contact with management.

Meanwhile, if the disruptive behavior is ignored, it will continue to frustrate other team members and create a much larger problem. As the team loses faith in management, morale declines, gossip and back-biting become more frequent, turnover increases, and even your best performers may lose motivation.

Luckily, there is a better way. Structured “cultivation” of healthy workplace behavior is often more effective than critical feedback, and carries far less risk.

Cultivation: Constructive without the criticism

Using a method I refer to as ‘cultivation’, you can address most behavior and performance issues without explicitly talking about them, which is ideal for anyone struggling to give effective feedback or looking for a reliable approach to improving workplace behavior. The idea is to substitute a more desirable behavior for the disruptive one. The process can be broken down into three steps:

1. Replace, don’t erase

The key to cultivation is identifying a specific positive behavior that will naturally compete with the one you don't want. 

Here’s an example. Imagine you run a coffee shop, and you have an employee who spends too much time on their phone during work. As a result, they fall behind on tasks, don't provide acceptable service to customers, and make small but frustrating mistakes on drink orders. You might reasonably conclude that the solution to all three problems would be for them to get off their phone.

Not necessarily. ‘Less phone’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘better performance.’ The employee might stop using their phone only to start distracting their coworkers with gossip instead. Getting rid of a disruptive behavior only produces positive outcomes if you replace it with something better.

In other words, there are an infinite number of behaviors you don’t want from your team. Offering only a single example of what they shouldn’t do provides no guidance about what they should.

Back to our example. What you actually want here is for your employee to focus on the task at hand, serve more customers, and produce higher quality work. These are the outcomes that increase value.

  • Instead of ‘less phone’, cultivate ‘more attentive service’
  • Instead of ‘less gossip’, cultivate ‘more positive recognition of fellow baristas’
  • Instead of ‘less error’, cultivate ‘more adherence to processes and standards’

If an employee knows only what you don't want, their safest course of action is to do nothing at all. Erasing an unhelpful habit creates a behavioral vacuum which must be filled with a new behavior. If you don’t actively cultivate a better behavior to take its place, another disruptive one may take root. 

Behavior is like a garden: the point of pulling weeds is to make room for flowers.

2. Set the stage for the replacement behavior to grow

As with any process of cultivation, you need to provide opportunities for the new behavior to take root and mature over time. You’ll need to design situations in which your team member can practice the replacement behavior.

Going back to our coffee shop, you might challenge your distracted barista to set a recurring timer to check on customers every 10 minutes. This behavior naturally competes with the behavior of looking at their phone because you can’t reasonably do both at the same time.

The timer serves as behavioral training wheels, prompting frequent opportunities to engage in the desired behavior of providing more attentive service. Your goal is to help them establish behavioral momentum.

You’ll need to get creative to come up with the right training wheels for each new situation. Just remember that the point is to encourage the individual to start doing more of what you want without directly saying (or indirectly implying) that they have been disappointing you. The benefit of cultivation is that it allows us to improve behavior while avoiding critical feedback and its associated risks.

Start by clarifying the value-generating actions you want your employee to pursue, using language like the following:

  • “Our customers love attentive service, so I’d like to challenge you to set a timer and check on our guests every 10 minutes.”
  • “People on our team respond well to recognition, so starting today I'd like you to recognize one person each day for their contribution.”
  • “Consistent quality is important to repeat business, so as part of the next phase of your training, I want you to practice following each step of the procedure exactly as written, then report any opportunities to improve our process.”

Notice how we are providing immediate clarity and setting up opportunities for positive change, without offering a single word of constructive criticism. Cultivation allows us to initiate improvement without causing someone to feel like a failure. The result is a much more constructive and pleasant overall experience, both for you and for the person you’re developing.

3. Reinforce the desired behavior

Now that you’ve identified the replacement behavior and created opportunities for practice, the final step is to make sure it sticks. It’s well-established that habits form only after a behavior is repeatedly followed by “reinforcement.”

Reinforcement means providing immediate positive consequences after the desired behavior is performed, psychologically linking it to a desirable experience or outcome for the employee. While we are often not consciously aware of it, reinforcement is integral to any learning process and constantly influences our behavior.

So, to reinforce the desired behavior, you must provide a strong positive consequence immediately afterwards. The more positive and the more immediate the consequence is, the faster the new behavior will become a habit.

Getting reinforcement right requires thoughtfulness. In particular, make sure the reward you plan to use will be reinforcing from the employee’s perspective. What you see as a reinforcer might not feel like one to somebody else—if your employee has dietary restrictions, a gift card “reward” to a restaurant they can’t eat at will hardly function as a reinforcer. 

As for timing, I really do mean that reinforcement must be immediate, ideally within 5 seconds of a desired behavior taking place. That means it can be helpful for you to be physically present so that you can offer reinforcement right away, while the neurons are still warm. That said, late reinforcement is far better than no reinforcement at all.

The most fundamental and most essential form of reinforcement is genuine gratitude. Offering a meaningful “thank you” or “great job” as soon as you see someone doing what you’ve asked of them is a powerful way to reinforce their effort and progress. Even if the behavior is less than perfect, it’s important to help the individual establish the roots of their new habit. You will refine their behavior later on by reinforcing many small improvements over time.

Of course, offering praise and gratitude is itself a habit that you’ll need to develop. I recommend using the following model to help you construct messages of gratitude:

“Hey, I appreciated you doing [behavior], because [impact]. Thank you!”

Valchemy’s Engine app was built precisely for the purpose of helping team members offer this kind of reinforcing and supportive gratitude to one another. When you notice someone doing a great job, Engine allows you to send them a message recognizing their contribution. This not only serves as social reinforcement, it also leads to follow-on effects: Engine awards the recipient virtual tokens that can be redeemed for other forms of reinforcement, strengthening the effect and accelerating behavioral growth. Here are some examples of actual gratitude messages sent using Engine, written by individuals who have learned the process of cultivation:

  • “Jayden, I noticed you had zero missed breaks this pay period! It made payroll so much faster for me! 🙂 Thank you!!”
  • “Yvonne! Thanks for assisting Dave and me with the difficult customers this morning. It really eased my anxiety. You’re the best!”
  • “Charlotte, thank you so much for letting me shadow you today. The tips you showed me are going to make it so much easier next time!

Adjust the language to feel natural and personal, but make sure you always specify the behavior and the positive impact when sharing gratitude.

It’s worth noting that reinforcement is a precise and technical concept with some counter-intuitive aspects that aren’t covered in this brief overview. If you would like assistance designing an effective reinforcement strategy for your team, feel free to reach out by email, and stay tuned for an upcoming article dedicated to the nuances of reinforcement in the workplace.

New habits take time 

Whether you choose cultivation or opt for the riskier conversational approach, it’s going to take time to achieve a lasting shift in behavior. In the cultivation process, steps two and three (prompting and reinforcing) need to be repeated several times in order for the new habit to bloom. Sometimes as few as three repetitions is enough to create a self-sustaining habit, other times it can take weeks. 

But the advantages start right away: by following the three steps, you can clarify expectations, boost motivation and positive morale, and begin cultivating more constructive behavior—all without ever having to say those dreadful words, “Hey, we need to talk about your performance.”

That said, there are cases where verbal feedback will be required, particularly in emergencies when there is an imminent threat to someone’s safety or employment, and in other cases where the threat outweighs the interpersonal risks of verbal feedback. But these are particular kinds of situations; here, the purpose of verbal feedback is to hit the brakes so we can deal with the crisis, not to improve performance.

Verbal feedback alone typically won’t lead to reliable long-term change, even when delivered skillfully and successfully with no hard feelings. Your employee might wholeheartedly agree to improve, and mean it…and the desired behavior might still fail to show up (or might appear briefly only to vanish a few weeks later). Regardless of how change is initiated, reinforcement is necessary for habits to form.

Human psychology is complex, with countless variables influencing our behavior at any given time. Many times, I’ve watched as executives and managers become unnecessarily frustrated as they have the same difficult feedback conversation with the same person over and over. It rarely leads to change. New behavior almost always requires some degree of cultivation to become routine: clarify the desired behavior, create opportunities for practice, and reinforce repeatedly.

I hope these ideas are of use to you in your day-to-day work life. If you would like assistance learning or applying these concepts, please feel free to reach out. I'll be happy to help you transform your culture and bring out the best in those around you.

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