Everything I know about giving feedback I learned while teaching kids. I used to work part-time for a preschool program where the ethos was “don’t say ‘good job.’” It’s flimsy praise and gives kids exactly nothing to explore further. I’ve found the same to be true for adults.
As a UX Writer (and a Gemini), I have a love-hate relationship with sharing my work for critique. I love discovering when the words aren’t doing what they should be — I love improving products! But, I hate that sometimes I sense my peers don’t have any particular feedback — they’ll either remain silent or say something like “looks good!” This feedback is very hard to build on. My hypothesis about what happens is that people are looking for flaws and if they can’t find any, they forget to give praise about what was done well.
I’m here to ask you to praise your peers because the silence is deafening when you don’t. And, it’s much easier to repeat something done well than to find a quick fix for something that doesn’t work.
Giving praise can be as simple as saying “I like your use of the color plum.”
This sentence signals praise at the start, and goes beyond the superficial with tangible evidence. In one fell swoop, it acknowledges praise, the effort that goes into decision-making, and a specific decision.
I learned this schema when I worked for a program that paired college students with preschool kids to encourage fundamental learning and social skills. Our goal was to build up the child’s confidence by asking them to explore and seek validation from themselves. Healthy design teams have a similar goal in my opinion — to encourage growth among peers.
I find the five principles from Alexia Dellner's article Stop Saying 'Good Job' to Your Kids (and What to Say Instead) really inspiring. They're based on research by the University of Florida and Columbia University, and they taught me that you can give praise that has an impact and builds a healthier culture around critique.
Give someone a specific example of how they did well. This makes it easy to repeat that behavior in the future, and get the same positive outcome. Try starting this type of praise with “I like how you…” or “I admire it when you…”
Focus on the process, not the outcome
It takes months, sometimes years, to build a product. Yet, the end result is a product of the process. That’s why there’s a higher value in commenting on the effort and process. Instead of “great job getting your project done,” you might try saying, “you must have worked so hard and managed your time well to meet this tight deadline!”
Avoid praising people for things they don’t control
Consider, for example, that praise about the visual attractiveness of a design can easily lack value when it’s based on a subjective opinion or immovable requirements like your brand’s design language. Praise what’s within someone’s power like the effort, generosity, and attitude that they put into the work.
I often worry that the praise I get from my coworkers will dry up if my strengths and knowledge in a particular subject don’t translate to other projects. But, what I try to remember is that I actually control and want to be praised for how I approach problems and create spaces for people to share ideas. I don’t always need to be the subject matter expert.
Say what you see
A simple, evaluation-free statement lets someone know that you noticed. It allows them to take pride in what they did and gives them a moment to expand on what you’re seeing. Remember to be specific, so your statement has depth for the receiver.
Allow someone to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments by asking questions. Doing this allows someone to reward themselves, and encourages them to internalize what they observed about their own efforts. You could uncover a fascinating conversation by asking, “what was the hardest part to design?” or “I’d love to learn from your process, how did you approach this problem?”
A bonus: just say “thank you”
“Good job” or “looks good” can be an attempt to show appreciation for someone. Try a simple “thank you for being here” or a more verbose “your many-folded brain makes our products better.” This shows someone that their whole self has value.
Creating moments to celebrate your peers’ work is vital to a psychologically safe environment, builds a culture of curiosity, and allows people to recognize what they do well. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve found to create a positive impact on the culture of my team. If you’d like to keep reading, I also highly recommend these articles: