Maximize The Power of Positive

December 12, 2023
By Suzanne Weston

Four times a year, during quarterly business reviews and self-appraisals, companies have an opportunity to inspire employees and suppliers.

It’s typically a rare occurrence.

These platforms are geared to providing performance feedback and, in the case of quarterly reviews, drive continuous improvement. But all too often, such reviews focus on identifying shortcomings rather than spotlighting positives.

It’s often easier to criticize than compliment. Employees usually are aware of their failures or weaknesses. Dwelling on them during a quarterly review can create hurt feelings and disappointment. Instead, during these meetings, create an atmosphere that drives better performance and recognizes performance headlines.

How? Recognize employees’ untapped strengths, discuss areas where performance has improved, accentuating the positives while suggesting on ways to continue to be more impactful. This reverses the negative dialogue, turning it into positive. Boosting confidence in your employees’ ability to succeed can motivate them to try harder and to exceed expectations.

Firsthand Experience

I can offer proof of this. I am auditing an art fundamentals course at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where instructor Michael Caudo inspires students to push themselves. His enthusiasm and positive attitude, combined with recognizing each student’s ability and improvements, are contagious. Each session begins with a warm, heartfelt welcome, and a friendly question: “So, what’s new since we met last?”

What impresses me is that, after asking the question, he actively listens and remembers. Next are critiques of homework assignments, performed by the entire class. They are objectively discussed, but even negatives are framed in a positive light.

The group feedback I received was not all positive, but I still left the room feeling good about it. Why? The difference is with the instructor’s influence, asking, “How did it feel doing the assignment?” “Did you enjoy doing it?” This shifts the focus, introducing a level of caring and personalization, making it less about the finished product and more about the creative process. Art is not about perfection; it’s about enjoying the experience and individualized learning.

This message can apply far beyond the classroom: By focusing on learning and growth, we can enable people to be their best.

Some might argue that college instructors are different than corporate professionals. Educators are able to balance a passion for their academic field with teaching. These dual drivers allow them to inspire their students. Yes, instructors might love the content they teach, but attitude makes a huge difference, too.

Caudo has helped me recognize the power of positive. He pushes me to stretch myself, and I see the same enthusiasm in each student. His attitude radiates, making each of us want to do better — because we know we can.

Systematic Shortcomings

Corporations push for improvement using quarterly reviews, but they have multiple agendas. Employees often perceive performance reviews to be a rubric for controlling raises and promotions. To be rewarded, they must demonstrate they consistently exceed expectations, which can create competition with peers and an adversarial relationship between manager and employee.

All too often, conversations weigh past performance and focus on misses. Companies push SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound — goals, which are often tactical rather than inspirational.

Think about the impact on performance if reviews stressed the positives and provided praise. Imagine if performance reviews enabled managers to express gratitude and appreciation. Then, instead of leaving the session despondent, employees would feel valued and inspired. While such a review might not result in a raise or promotion, it would generate goodwill and focus on the employees’ strengths.

Best Served Fresh

Negative feedback is best provided immediately, and then forgotten, unless the issue repeats. Employees need a safe environment to fail forward, which is essential for creativity and breakthroughs. By encouraging people to test the limits and learn from their mistakes, they must be able to try and fail. These same breakthroughs are possible outcomes from quarterly supplier reviews.

Too often, however, corporations rely on policies to drive practices that focus on compliance rather than finding opportunities. Often, these structured reviews support a metrics-driven agenda, looking at past performance rather than opening a discourse on what could be.

Returning to the classroom as a student, with an inspiring teacher, made me remember the feeling of belonging, being totally accepted and included. Creating a sense of belonging and a desire to excel is linked to radiating a positive attitude from the top — and is possible not only in the classroom, but also in any workplace.

Why We Do What We Do

It also can be applied to reviews related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Looking back on my corporate career, it seems like leadership can use a lesson on inclusion. For example, DEI programs frequently rely on consultants to survey their employees, identifying strengths and weaknesses and setting targets. This shows a lack of support, turning community development into a reporting exercise.

In quarterly reviews, when leadership focuses on bottom-line results, they leave line managers to determine how to create a balanced workplace with inclusion while delivering outcomes. The subtle message is to prioritize results.

Become Inspired

This does not mean that corporate employees are doomed. But it does require an infusion of passion and shift of focus. If you want exceptional performance, provide an environment that supports experimentation and allows for failure. Create a process that (1) sees the potential in everyone, (2) takes time to recognize their growth and (3) challenges them to be their very best.

In truth, not all educators can bring their passion to the classroom; for many, it is simply a job, measured by results. But my experience at Rutgers University shows what is possible. Imagine if quarterly reviews were about extolling the positives, showcasing strengths, and inspiring others.

Just by changing the way we deliver feedback, we might find change mindsets and deliver previously unimaginable results.

(Image credit: Getty Images/

About the Author

Suzanne Weston

About the Author

Suzanne Weston is a former partner, program strategies at IW Consulting Group, specializing in supplier diversity program creation, innovation and management. She is passionate about building impactful second-tier programs.