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Positive Feedback Management - The Point

breakthrough sound barrier positive feedback management

Discretionary effort. That's the whole point of using the Positive Feedback Management approach in your organization: discretionary effort.

Discretionary effort is effort we choose to make. We could do less, and get away with it, but we choose not to. We choose to make an extra effort; effort beyond the minimum required.

At the 30,000 foot level, discretionary effort is the only people-management result that matters. Discretionary effort is what the writers and statisticians are really talking about in the 10,0000 articles about that unicorn of results: employee engagement. It is the only human behaviour that lifts organizations from stagnation into growth-generating momentum.

Discretionary effort is the consequence of effective feedback management.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback isn't about saying something nice or offering a raise. Positive Feedback Management is a dynamic system that ensures discretionary effort through reinforcing feedback.

Feedback Management changes the psychological environment for behaviour. It creates the clarity, incentive, trust, and feedback required for any human to make more than a minimum of effort. Positive feedback is a precondition for discretionary effort.

You walk into a dark room. You reach with your hand to the right about four feet off the ground to find a switch, and push it up. Why? Because the first time you ever did that, the lights went on. You received natural feedback that the behaviour created a desired result: light. So you do it every time.

Also read: Want the Truth? Feedback in Business

Positive feedback creates the snowball effect in behaviour: the bigger the snowball (discretionary effort) gets as it rolls down the hill, the more snow it picks up (feedback). The more snow it picks up, the bigger it gets!

Positive feedback in the management of people works like this :

  • you set the conditions for me to behave in a desired way;
  • when I choose to behave in that way, you say or do something that increases the likelihood I will do it again;
  • I use discretionary effort to behave that way more and more often, providing more opportunities for reinforcing feedback, and celebration.

Why does this matter? Because everything that grows a business, or influences its directions, and successes, is the product of human behaviour; everything.

Discretionary Effort

As employees we make a choice every day: make just enough effort to justify our existence and not get fired, or make that extra, discretionary effort, and make a difference.

For businesses, the difference between the two choices is the difference between poor customer service or great; high employee turnover or high retention; minimal productivity or record-breaking productivity: management burn-out or effective, joyous management; and ultimately a stagnant, dying business or a thriving, highly profitable business.

Why does Positive Feedback Management work in getting our discretionary effort? Because it is the only form of people management that respects the psychological laws that drive us. All humans, and every animal on earth, acts on the basis of feedback. There is no other way to learn, and no other way to grow. No healthy humans learn, or change, or dig deep for discretionary effort, for any reason other than feedback. Direct instruction, creating examples, negative feedback, threats, goals and performance reviews: none of it ever lifts human behaviour above 'just enough not to get fired'. Only positive feedback does that.

What about pay? Isn't a paycheque enough to inspire discretionary effort?

First of all, when pay is tied to performance in a meaningful way it is a form of positive feedback: I behaved in a certain way and my pay went up. I'll behave that way even more!

The problem is immediately obvious however: what happens when as the employer I can't increase the pay any more? Does that mean the employees won't increase performance any more?

Unfortunately that's exactly what it means.

But the deeper problem with pay is that it isn't a dependable motivator for discretionary effort. Ask yourself this, and be honest: do you really think the large paycheque for that employee down the hall is motivating them to use discretionary effort? Are they choosing to do more every day because of their paycheque? Or are they doing just enough not to lose it?

Ask anyone who has ever played with compensation schemes to increase performance: they only work so far. In the end they are a zero-sum game. The employees do just enough not to lose what they have gained, and not a calorie's-worth more. Pay, in-and-of-itself, guarantees no specific behaviours, and certainly not discretionary effort.

About 2/3 of all employees are disengaged at work. 16% of them are actively disengaged, meaning they are actively working against the organizations that employ them. Disengagement means many things but one above all: it means I work only the minimum not to get fired. The cost of this to organizations in turn-over, poor productivity and profitability, unhappy customers, safety violations, and so much more is well documented, and staggering.

Do you want an organization that bucks these trends? An organization where employees choose to make the level of effort that changes things? An organization snowballing towards unstoppable success? Then make a commitment to Positive Feedback.

Download our eBook on how to institute a positive feedback management in your organization.


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