Positive Feedback

A Best Practice in Staff Training

Of all the best practices we’ve explored as trainers, the practice of providing positive feedback to motivate learners and to encourage change in order to improve and enhance outcomes takes precedence. The following exercise demonstrates the importance of this best practice.

As an educator, over the years I have conducted the “orange peel exercise” many times to demonstrate the importance of positive feedback in the learning environment. To set up this exercise, I give each participant an orange, a paper napkin and a felt pen. I give the instruction clearly and concisely: “Please peel your orange. When you have peeled your orange, please present your orange and its peelings on the paper napkin. Print your name on the paper napkin.”

I repeat the instructions to ensure understanding.

As directed, participants peel their oranges, prepare their presentation and print their names on the napkins. When they have finished, they are fascinated to realize that there are many different ways to peel an orange. There are many comments on the variety and diversity of the end result.

Then, I begin the second part of the exercise. I ask each participant to get up, and tour the room. I ask them to choose their 3 favourite oranges and I ask them to justify their choices with 2 or 3 reasons. I reassure those concerned about being evaluated by pointing out that as we go through the learning process, we are always being evaluated – even marked and scored. “Besides,” I say, “This will all be positive feedback – the oranges we like and why.” They relax. It seems we all fear negative feedback.

When the evaluation is complete, they return to their places and I begin the third step in the activity. I start by asking a participant to share his/her choices with the group.

“I like Mike’s orange because he kept the peeling all in one piece – like a slinky.”

“I also like Maureen’s orange because she kept her peeling in one piece and put the peeled orange back into the peeling – like a bird in a nest.”

I thank them for their feedback and move on to another participant.

“I like Maureen’s orange as well. I like the way she put the orange back in. That’s neat.”

“I also like Kelly’s orange because she broke it into pieces – ready to eat.”

“But I like Sam’s orange best. He made a decoration out of the peelings. That takes creativity.”

As I collect more and more feedback, a pattern begins to develop. In every group, there are certain oranges that receive more positive feedback and other oranges that receive none. I keep track of the feedback as it is provided, noting how many times each person’s orange is chosen.

When I have heard from a number of people in the group, I move on to step four in the exercise.

Taking with me an unpeeled orange, I approach one of the participants who received the most positive feedback. I hold out the orange and say:

“Seventeen people chose your orange. If I were to give you another orange, what might you do differently?”

Now, keep in mind that this participant has been able to hear all the feedback given and has had some time to reflect on it. It’s fascinating to hear the results. Without hesitation, the people who receive positive feedback agree to work as hard and as well the next time. They seek ways to improve on their presentation the next time. Some comments I hear sound like this:

“The next time I’ll take more time to remove the white pulp – I could have done that.”

“I’ll break mine into pieces and have it consumer ready.”

“I’ll work harder to keep the peeling in one piece – I like that.”

Those participants who receive the positive, encouraging feedback are uninhibited in sharing the ways that they can improve and develop. When two participants who are sitting side by side both receive positive feedback, there will often be a side discussion between them as they reveal to each other ideas they’ve had for improvement. It’s amazing how interested people are in peeling their orange even better!

However, I also approach those people who did not receive positive feedback. Again, with an unpeeled orange in hand, I approach a participant who did not receive any feedback. Remember, participants were not given negative or corrective feedback at all. They were simply not included in the positive feedback.

Extending the orange, I say to the participant:

“Your orange didn’t receive any positive feedback.”

Again, except for a very few examples, the response is consistent and similar to all the participants I approach. Those who received no positive feedback do one of three things.

  • They defend their orange.
  • They blame their lack of feedback on the orange, the situation or me.
  • They de-value the task and make it unimportant.

Some comments I hear:

“This is the way I’ve always peeled oranges and this is the way I’ll continue to peel oranges.”

“I could have done a better job if I had a knife. It’s hard to do a good job without proper equipment.”

“My orange was hard to peel – it was a crappy orange to start with”.

“I don’t see what difference it makes. All the oranges were peeled and that was the objective. An orange is an orange is an orange.”

“The next time I peel an orange I certainly won’t put it on display. I don’t care what other people think.”

What is the difference? Why is one group so willing to improve and develop and the other group so defensive and stuck in its ways? Is positive feedback really that effective? I believe it is.