I’d like to think that I do good work. Unfortunately, though, I also think most of it is crap. I’m my worst critic, and praising me doesn’t help much. Here’s what I hear:

“Good George! Such a good boy! Keep up the great work!”

This makes me feel like a puppy, not a professional.

If I lived in the age of craft, I’d get feedback from the work itself.  I’d look upon my woodwork or horseshoes or clothing and know what quality looked like. In the age of industry, I’d receive feedback from my foreman or the next worker on the line, telling me whenever my widget wasn’t up to snuff. Today isn’t the age of craft or industry, though – it’s the age of information.

My ‘product’ isn’t tangible like fine furniture, a horseshoe, or a car part. I produce ideas, synthesize concepts, leverage networks, and ensure the right people are informed at the right time. Such is the work of the bureaucrat. I often don’t see the direct result of my work, because it gets passed through many other hands before it reaches its final destination.

Today’s bureaucrats rarely receive praise or feedback. Their managers seem beholden to the age of the assembly line, when the work itself would provide enough feedback to workers. Knowledge workers don’t get that luxury. Many managers confuse silence with positivity: “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing good work.”

When they do speak with their employees about performance, managers occasionally praise, but rarely give good, specific feedback. The former is a generalized pat-on-the-back, a statement that the person is doing good work. The latter is precise. Feedback says what you did and what resulted. It says, “You did X, and that made Y happen.”

Praise focuses on the person and it’s usually just the manager’s opinion. Feedback focuses on the work, and it’s based on observable facts and behaviours.

Praise is “You’re doing great work, keep it up!” Feedback is “That report you wrote was concise, written in plain language, and allowed the director to get a good idea of what’s going on. Please write future reports the same way!” Which would you rather hear from your boss?

Employees everywhere are desperate for feedback, positive or otherwise. Sure, it’s nice to praise them, but providing specific, concrete feedback is far more useful. People want to know what constitutes quality work. If their work isn’t up to standards, they want to know exactly what they should change. That’s good feedback, and we all need it to live up to our potential.

The next time you plan to tell an employee “Good work”, think about what specifically they did to earn that praise. Describe for them exactly what they did, and describe the outcome. Go beyond just praising your staff and give them the feedback that they crave.

George Wenzel George Wenzel is a journeyman public servant. He’s worked in both legal and information technology roles, but his passion is leadership and management. He’s currently on a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel and on Twitter @georgewenzel.