The Significance of Recognition and Positive Feedback in Team Development

This post explores the importance of recognition and positive feedback in cultivating the development of a high performing, motivated team. In it I’ll talk a little bit about the responsibility of managers towards their teams, the science of positive feedback, and tools and tactics you can use to cultivate a culture of positive reinforcement on your team.

Management—a Noble Responsibility

I read a book once that described management as among the noblest of professions—and if you have one or more direct reports, then you should consider yourself a part of it. The responsibility that managers hold towards their teams simply can’t be understated.

Think back to your worst boss ever. Recall how Sunday night felt as you thought about the coming week. Take a moment to reflect on the stories you shared with friends, partners, or family – the rants during car rides home from the office, and the endless accounts over drinks or dinners recounting how awful and inept that manager was. Now, ponder how they made you feel – angry, irritated, frustrated, incompetent, small. Consider how these emotions rippled through your relationships, affecting those around you out of compassion.

Now, contrast this with your best boss ever. How did they make you feel about yourself? What attitudes and behaviors did they exhibit that inspired and motivated you to work for or with them? Perhaps you frequently went for coffee with them. Or maybe when the demands of the organization became overwhelming, they were right there in the office, sharing the workload or advocating for your access to more time or resources to get the job done. Just like in the previous exercise, think about how this impacted those around you. You were likely more pleasant to be around when the workday ended, or perhaps you had more time to spend with your family and friends. These positive ripples in the pond had a vastly different impact on your relationships.

Framed in that perspective, its clear to see that you as a manager play a role not only in the well being of your direct reports at the office, but also in their lives. We spend roughly half of our waking hours five out of seven days a week at work. What happens at work affects our lives So, what could be more noble than directly influencing the time spent at work and being a key factor in elevating and improving the lives of the individuals who work on your team?

The Science Behind Positive Reinforcement

Self Efficacy

Self-efficacy, essentially confidence, refers to an individual’s belief in their capacity to perform behaviors necessary to achieve specific performance goals (Bandura, Freeman, & Lightsey, 1999). This concept is foundational to positive psychology. Unlike traits such as extraversion or conscientiousness, self-efficacy is a state; an individual can be confident in one setting or field at one point in time and not in another.

Albert Bandura was a Canadian-American psychologist who was the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. His extensive work in the field of positive psychology and self-efficacy spanned decades. His rich theory and widely supported findings clearly indicate that the more confident an individual is:

  • The more likely they are to embrace challenges and welcome the associated challenges.
  • The more effort and motivation they will invest in successfully accomplishing tasks.
  • The more persistence they will exhibit when encountering obstacles or initial failures.

The above reflects a profile of an employee or individual ideally suited to perform in today’s workplace (Luthans, 2002). Moreover, a meta-analysis of 114 studies found a stronger relationship between self-efficacy and workplace performance than several other organizational behavior-related concepts such as goal setting, job satisfaction, and the big five personality traits.

Building your crew up and reenforcing positive behaviours is key to cultivating a healthy team culture.


For four decades the legendary Pat Summitt led the University of Tennessee Lady basketball program. Her resume includes a mind-boggling win-loss record of 1,098-208, eight NCAA titles, being nominated as one of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time by The Sporting News (the only woman to make the list), a one hundred percent graduation rate for all ladies who completed their eligibility at Tennessee, and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barrack Obama in 2012. She is quite literally among the greatest coaches of all time.

A study was conducted late in her career to systematically examine the practice behaviours of Summitt using verbal and non-verbal behaviours recorded over several practices. A total of 3,296 behaviours were observed and coded. The findings were telling and can serve to inform managers and leaders everywhere. Results indicated that the most frequent behaviour was instruction (48%), followed by praise (14.5%), and hustle (10.7%) (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008).

Instructional behaviour included verbal instructions such as “When the guard is curling back and you’re posting, make sure that you screen first, then post”, questioning such as, “If you are posting down low, where, will your defender be?”, and positive modelling such as demonstrating how to perform a movement correctly. Non-instructional behaviours such as praise were phrases such as “Way to read the court. Nice look inside”, and hustle were phrases such as “Come on, let’s go! What we got? Come on!”.

What is most telling is that scolding, phrases such as, “go ahead and mark that down for a sprint. This is unacceptable in our program”, accounted for a meager 10% of feedback provided to team members. Taken together, instructional feedback, praise, and encouragement accounted for 79% of the feedback provided to the team, outweighing negative feedback by a ratio of eight to one. More to the point, that ratio of feedback showed little variance when delivered towards high expectancy or low expectancy players, everyone was treated relatively equally (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008).

The importance of these behaviors in the workplace is easy to contextualize. College basketball, or any high-level team sport, involves high performance, high pressure, a drive for continuous improvement, varying skill levels within the team, and clear objectives with tangible stakes. How does your team’s feedback culture compare to Summitt’s?

If you’ve every played or watched sports, think about the impact that has on the team. Consider a coach obsessed with pointing out where players go wrong or make mistakes. Compare that against the coach who in on the sidelines visibly building his or her team members up. The most memorable half time speeches in movies show a coach telling the team about how they can overcome the odds, not pointing out the faults in their plays and how they can be done better.

Three Tools and Tactics for Recognition and Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace

Building your team’s confidence and morale need not be challenging, nor does it require special leadership or coaching courses. It can be as straightforward as dedicating time and resolve to provide recognition. Here are a few tactics to help you get started:

  1. Recognize routine positive behaviour

We sometimes fall into the habit of only providing praise for outlier positive performance, or when an employee goes well above and beyond the call of duty. Finding a brief moment to recognize the value of routine positive behaviour can be just as valuable as praise in the big moments. A simple phrase such as “I really appreciate that you’re keeping me in the loop on where you’re at with that project, I thing you’re doing a good job and am interested in seeing how it unfolds” can show an employee that you value their transparency and communication. On the flip side feedback can also be framed as “I think you’ve got a really good handle on that project and I trust you to manage it, so don’t worry about cc’ing me on some of those emails if there aren’t any action items for me”, can show an employee that you trust them and are happy with their performance.

  1. Set your own goal for providing recognition

It may seem a little contrived at first, but setting a goal of providing positive feedback to team members on a regular basis can be an excellent way to get yourself into the habit of recognition. It may be one piece of positive feedback each day, or one piece of positive feedback per team member each week or each day. In reality it should probably be far more depending on how directly you work with team members, but we’re starting small. You may find yourself struggling to find things to recognize at first, but that goes back to the first point, sometimes its not the big achievements that we need to recognize, but the small, positive behaviours that occur each day.

  1. Set a budget to recognize and quantify positive performance

At one of my previous employers, we had a staff rewards budget that was a discretionary fund allocated on a monthly basis to recognize team members. While some teams used it to provide grand gestures such as hotel stays, spa days, or dinners, the downside of that was bigger rewards meant fewer people could be recognized. Another challenge to that was ensuring that rewards were allocated with some transparency and democracy, so we would often vote on who the employees to be recognized were. Within a year, often times the same overperformers would be selected, diminishing the perceived value of each subsequent reward to the recipient and making those left out to feel that their performance didn’t merit recognition.

So rather than allocating our employee recognition budget towards grander gestures, each of our supervisory level managers were given a gift card to one of several local coffee shops. When they saw positive behaviour that they wanted to recognize, they would acknowledge it in the moment, provide a small reward, and document the positive interaction and recognition in a feedback log. Feedback would be delivered such as “I see how you handled that interaction and could tell that you really focused on making that guest’s day by taking time to ask questions about their needs and using their name. Take my card and grab yourself a coffee. I just want to recognize what you did. I won’t be around to see that stuff all the time but want you to know that we really value you and your approach to guest interactions.”

Note here that the feedback is delivered in a timely and direct manner and acknowledges the behaviour that you would like to reinforce. Note that material rewards aren’t requisite for delivering positive feedback, acknowledgement can be reward enough.

If at the end of the month you aren’t working your way through your staff rewards budget, then you may need to ask your team some tough questions. Are the staff not exhibiting behaviour worth recognizing (possible); or is your team not doing a good job of identifying and recognizing those behaviours (probable)?


Positive feedback cultivates an environment of trust and trust is a key element in cultivating a high performing team environment. As a leader or manager, consistently identifying and recognizing positive behaviors within your team will lead your team to perceive you as a leader who values their contributions in the workplace. Consequently, when the need for corrective or negative feedback arises, they will be more receptive to it.

Consider your response to a leader who exclusively provides negative feedback. It’s easy to disengage and attribute the problem to their leadership rather than your performance. Conversely, when a leader who consistently acknowledges your consistent good work offers constructive feedback, you’re more likely to trust their judgment because you see them as having a broader, more comprehensive perspective on your strong performance. With this in mind, the value of positive feedback on your team should be self evident.

Challenge yourself to provide more positive feedback, and do it promptly. If you’ve read this far, you’re well on your way to enhancing your team by recognizing the value of feedback in team settings. Excellent job!


Bandura, A., Freeman, W. H., & Lightsey, R. (1999). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. 158-166.

Becker, A. J., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2008). Effective Coaching in Action: Observations of Legendary Collegiate Basketball Coach Pat Summit. The Sport Psychologist, 197-211.

Luthans, F. (2002). The need for and meaning of positive organizational behavior. J. Organiz. Behav, 695-706. Retrieved from

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