Improve employee performance by focusing on the positive

Improve employee performance by focusing on the positive and using bottom-of-the-cup feedback

Many managers complain about providing performance management feedback. They find it unpleasant, say it leads to more trouble than it is worth, and complain that employees don’t always make the changes needed to improve performance. An IT manager once told me he hates providing performance feedback, especially when it has to be negative.  “So many employees are really not self-aware and open to the feedback,” he said.

Of course, no one relishes giving negative feedback, but there are ways to make the conversation easier and improve the chances of a positive outcome. One of the best ways is what I call bottom-of-the-cup feedback, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Sharing feedback improves performance

Giving feedback can significantly improve employee performance, but a third of the time when feedback is provided, it actually decreases performance because employees are not provided with the coaching and the supportive environment they need to improve. Another common problem is when the feedback becomes personal.

The gold standard for providing feedback begins with setting expectations. It starts with setting specific goals (using the SMART goal or OKR goal approach), continues with giving clear instruction, and then concludes by providing immediate praise, recognition, and feedback, both positive and constructive—and training or coaching to improve.

Positive feedback in a 5-1 ratio works best in most circumstances

In the ideal environment, feedback is more positive and reinforcing than negative by a 5 to 1 ratio. According to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in their article in the Harvard Business Review, the proportion of positive to negative feedback is critical to improving team performance. The highest performing teams (as measured by achieving goals and financial performance) give each other five positive comments for every criticism. As the chart on the right indicates, medium performing teams average almost twice as many positive comments as negative comments. The lowest-performing teams provide three negative comments to every compliment.

The authors note that a little negative feedback goes a long way to improve performance.

  1. It grabs employees’ attention because it is rarely experienced.
  2. It guards against complacency.
  3. It helps overcome serious weaknesses. The key word here is serious

The authors note that playing to strengths is always a great strategy, but some weaknesses can’t be ignored. And that is part of the point. Don’t provide negative feedback with “the little things.” Save negative or constructive feedback for the significant issues that get in the way of success. If the employee’s behavior or skills do not improve with their significant issue, a performance improvement plan may need to be initiated.

Drive feedback with the bottom-of-the-cup approach

This highly effective approach first asks the employee for input on what has gone well, not so well, and then allows the manager to comment on the employee’s observations and statements. Then, the manager makes his or her own observations. The employee’s observations are top-of-the-cup feedback, like the froth on a latte.

The beauty of this approach is that it lets the employee go first. In this way, the employee has a stake in his or her own feedback and performance. It allows the manager to agree with the employee, which builds a sense of “we-ness,” or connectivity and mutual support and agreement.

Finally, it allows the manager to make comments based on his or her own observations or feedback from others to add to what the employee has said. This is the bottom-of-the-cup. This approach can be used when an employee has finished a new task or assignment, during a weekly check-in meeting, or a performance appraisal meeting.

Here is a sample script:

  1. How do you think your work/project is going?
  2. What do you think went well with (BE SPECIFIC)?
  3. What didn’t go so well?
  4. Yes, I agree with your comment (BE SPECIFIC). Now, let me make some observations.

Of course, you should not provide negative feedback for the first time during an annual performance appraisal. It only surprises employees and makes them feel defensive. Progress on goals and feedback should be made with open communications between the manager and employee and updated quarterly in performance management systems. Ultimately, the goal is to build trust between the manager and employee and among team members. Trust is the most important element of team success, even more critical than other essential characteristics such as intelligence, expertise, commitment to the goal, and goal and role clarity.

The bottom-of-the-cup approach helps employees have a stake in their own development, build relationships and set goals with their managers to improve. It also reduces the sting of negative feedback. Employees having clarity on goals and their roles is also critical. Finally, I encourage managers to create the optimum environment for feedback by giving positive feedback to negative feedback with the goal of a 5 to 1 ratio.

About Victor Assad

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and Managing Partner of InnovationOne, LLC. He works with organizations to transform HR and recruiting, implement remote work, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: The Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. He is quoted in business journals such as The Wall Street Journal, Workforce Management, and CEO Magazine. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at


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