Which weighs more, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers? It’s actually a trick question that astute readers (or those who have heard the “joke” before) will immediately see: A pound is a pound is a pound…regardless of the material involved.

But ask yourself this question: Even though the lead and the feathers both weigh a pound, which material would have more impact when dropped on your head from say, six feet up? The lead! Of course it’s the lead. No one in their right mind would voluntarily let you drop a one-pound lead weight on their head. The feathers, on the other hand, might actually have people lining up for the experience.

So why in the world are we discussing lead and feathers in a leadership blog? Because the idea of these materials—and having them dropped on your head—applies directly to the comments and conversations we have with our employees. But before we delve into lead vs. feathers, it’s important to establish some terms.

For the sake of clarity, let’s lump all the other words we can think of that apply to leader-to-team communication (e.g., comments, conversations, instructions, compliments, etc.) into one, all-encompassing term: Feedback.

This idea of feedback, then, comes in two flavours—negative and positive. Negative feedback is like the pound of lead. Positive feedback is like the feathers.

So again, which would you rather have dropped on your head from six feet up? The answer is still the same. But equating positive feedback to feathers and negative feedback to lead brings up two very important points:

1) Negative feedback has a very powerful impact (just like the pound of lead on your head.)

2) It takes a lot more positive feedback (perhaps a TON of it) to have the same impact.

We might step out on a limb and say that negative actually weighs more than positive—metaphorically speaking, of course. That simple inequality (a pound of negative feedback does not equal a pound of positive feedback) can—and should—dictate how you interact with your employees.

Negative feedback: ‘Just a dash’

Negative feedback is a difficult, but essential part of any leader’s job. You don’t want to do it, but sometimes it’s necessary to get things back on track. Think about the feedback you have received over the years and you will immediately understand the concept that negative weighs more than positive. The negative feedback you received is far more memorable that the positive feedback. It had a very powerful impact. It’s the same for your employees. Any negative feedback is going to have a profound effect on how they do their work…or at least we hope it will.

Now we’re not saying you should shy away from negative feedback. It’s a necessary part of the leadership process. What we are saying is that when you need to dish out a pound of it, you need to ask yourself “How much positive feedback have I been giving?” Whatever you do, don’t simply mix your positive and negative feedback, it just confuses the message, but remember that over any period of time you’ll need to give a ton of positive feedback to equal the scales.

Positive feedback: ‘Pile it on’

It takes so much more positive to equal the impact of the negative. As a leader, you need to make sure that for every piece of negative feedback you deliver, you counter it with five or six pieces of positive feedback. Remember, it takes more positive to have an impact.

So make it your job to “catch” people doing things right. Then tell them about it. Compliment them on their actions. Show them how they made an impact. Express your gratitude for their efforts.

Be specific. Be genuine. And whatever you do, don’t seal it up and save it for the quarterly review. In fact as soon as you have read this post write out a list of things you appreciate about your team members. Do it again every day, then get busy telling them. They can’t read your mind, after all.

You will be absolutely amazed by what happens.

The power of a sincere ‘Thank you’

The power of genuine appreciation and specific thanks, when delivered sufficiently, far outweighs the power of any negative feedback you may have to give. Yes, you need to have both sets of feedback in your quiver and be ready to use when the need arises. But you also need to be more liberal, more giving, with your appreciation, because it’s this positive feedback that will ultimately do the most good.

Sure you can motivate someone to improve through negative feedback, but it only works for so long before everything begins to grind to a halt. Who wants that? You don’t, and neither do your employees. Reinforcing positive behaviours with positive feedback, on the other hand, encourages employees to continue exhibiting those behaviours. And by making a conscious effort to use the behaviours you like, they’ll leave the bad ones behind.

So the next time you have to deliver negative feedback, remember the other side of the coin: Sometime it takes a ton of feathers to the head to make a real, and lasting, impact.

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.