by Paul Matthews

Motivational feedback

Key point

Motivational feedback is, in effect, recognition. It fulfils our very human need to be valued by both ourselves and others.

Feedback is often divided into two basic types, developmental and motivational. Developmental feedback is where you give a person information that is designed to help them improve something they are doing. Motivational feedback is where you give someone approval for what they are doing as a way of reinforcing that behaviour.

Herzberg did some work on this and developed a theory around the motivational effects of different factors, including a sense of achievement and recognition (see Herzberg’s theory).

We all wish to be valued by our families, social friends and our workmates. This need to be valued is very strong and we will go to great lengths to get it satisfied.

Internal and external

Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to fully sustain our internal sense of value without the occasional external reinforcement to bolster up our sense of self worth. You may have noticed that some people require a lot more validation than others, and some need very little.

If someone needs lots of validation, they will lack motivation if they don’t get it. If they don’t need much at all, giving them too much positive feedback will actually annoy them. You need to know what each of your people needs by way of motivational feedback, as this will differ from person to person.

The internal person uses an internal set of standards to judge their worth and whether they have done a good job or not. The external person uses external standards to make this judgement, and thus relies on feedback or information from others to decide if they have done a good job or not.

If you think of a continuum between the extremes of internal and external, we can all be placed somewhere on that continuum. For example, in the diagram below, Tom puts much more weight on his own assessment of how he has performed than on external information, while Sue does the opposite.

In western cultures, about 40 per cent of us are like Tom, about 40 per cent are like Sue and the rest are in the middle with no strong bias.

You can learn about internal/external bias by asking your staff individually, ‘How do you know when you’ve done a good job?’ Some individuals just know (internal), whereas some need to be told, thanked or rewarded (external).


People can also have a different internal or external bias, depending on the context. For example, a person might be mostly internal when it comes to anything to do with their speciality: for example, accountancy. That is, they know within themselves when they do it well. The same person might be external within the context of clothing and wear whatever they are told is good to wear, but without having any real internal sense of whether or not this is good information.

The implications on motivation

Motivational feedback is external validation, and we could also call it recognition. It is just that some of us need more than others to function well.

First of all, understand your own needs as regards recognition. Do you need a lot or are you happy with the occasional pat on the back?

If you need a lot, it is advisable to let your own boss and your colleagues know this. It also means that you may be over-effusive in giving feedback to others because you treat them as you would wish to be treated. This will suit the externals amongst your team, but the internals will find too many pats on the back patronising.

If you need very little recognition or external validation, the danger is that you assume other people are the same and therefore give little to them. If you have people on your team who are external, this will feel to them like a feedback desert in which they believe themselves to be unappreciated and undervalued, which will cause low motivation.

Feedback to demonstrate interest

One of our most precious resources as a manager is time. When a manager shares some with another person – an employee – the message sent is that they are important. Everyone wants/needs/deserves to feel important. Exceptional leaders understand this and find the time to get face to face with the staff.

This goes beyond the perfunctory weekly meeting. It is about lingering a moment at the coffee bar to make eye contact and slip in a genuine positive comment to one of the employees. It’s about sticking your head in their office or work area to tell them something that will make them know you value them and their contributions to the team.

Feedback to reinforce desirable behaviors

One of the best and most valued forms of feedback is the occasional ‘pat on the back.’ Recognition that is timely (immediate) is the most valid. It feeds the employee’s sense of value and quickly reinforces the desired behaviours. It’s even better when others see what the manager finds valuable in performance.


Catch people doing something right and let them know you approve.

One positive comment on an employee’s great work can impact many others. Practise catching employees performing great work. That requires the old leadership activity of ‘Managing by walking around’.

Third party feedback

Feedback can come from sources other than the manager. If an employee is dealing with customers, they may do something so well that a customer phones the manager or sends in a letter of thanks. Whenever this sort of thing happens, publish it!

Publishing ‘raving fans’ customers’ letters, e-mails and so on, reinforces the importance of satisfying customers, recognises the employee who did the excellent job and helps all employees feel proud of the organisation. When a leader publicises positive customer feedback, the individual being praised gets the message, ‘You are great and everyone should know it!’ Everyone else in the organisation gets the indirect feedback that satisfying the customer is star performance.