Active-Constructive Feedback:How Positive Psychology Changed The Way I Interact With Almost Everyone, And How Companies Can Do It Too
Last year, I made a resolution to meditate every day (even though I generally really dislike the idea of New Year’s resolutions), and as of this writing, I’m on a 97-day streak. I’m not exaggerating when I say that meditation has improved my life in innumerable ways, and it’s hard to imagine my life without it now. The success of this got me thinking that it might be good, rather than to think of those little changes we make in our lives as “resolutions,” and to simply challenge myself to undertake a “personal improvement project” that is the cornerstone of each year for me.
My parents never said “no” to my brother and me when we were very little. Sound shocking? I don’t mean that they let us play in the middle of the street with matches or eat ice cream three meals a day; they simply naturally shaped our home environment so they wouldn’t have to say no. Things that they didn’t want us to do were simply unavailable; everything else was only accessible in ways that were safe and in moderation. They designed an experience for us as pre-verbal kids to not feel artificial limitations when it came to exploring and doing, and as we grew, they supported everything we wanted to do or try. This mindset had a profound impact on our sense of possibility, and I can confidently say that it set us up for much greater success as we entered adulthood- we entered the world feeling that it was safe and good for us to try everything.
Why am I reminiscing about Baby Patrick? Because I had a revelation late last year that I’ve gradually digested, and realized that we’re all profoundly impacted by the messages we receive from the people around us in terms of what we’re motivated or unmotivated to do. At my HBS reunion, there was a talk about positive psychology, the subject of the single most popular course at Harvard University, taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, considered one of the most important voices in this field. I figured that a typical response to this would be eye-rolling and “what a bunch of BS. Happy talk.” I was wrong. His lecture opened my eyes: psychology can be far more than the study of pathology, the negatively-oriented elimination of what’s wrong. Positive psychology emphasizes observing, in a methodical way, the behaviors and processes of successful people and groups, all with the goal of implementing them elsewhere- including within ourselves. It made me look at myself, and my role in the hundreds of interactions I engage in every day, in a whole new way.
Positive psychology emphasizes observing, in a methodical way, the behaviors and processes of successful people and groups, all with the goal of implementing them elsewhere
One of the most important concepts of positive psychology that I’ve internalized is the matrix of response styles first theorized by positive psychologist Shelly Gable. This theory organizes all interpersonal communication into one of four possible types: Active-Constructive, Passive-Constructive, Active-Destructive, and Passive-Destructive.
When I started working on my first book, I received a lot of Active-Destructive feedback. “Why are you writing a book? Is there any money in it?” People were interested in and responsive to what I shared, but reacted with a focus on the possibility of negative outcomes and questioning the value of the endeavor. This is far from unique: think of all the times you’ve excitedly shared something you’ve done or are about to do, only to receive a response like, “That sounds dangerous… what if it doesn’t work?.. Isn’t it awfully expensive?.. What will you do if you fail?” Active-Destructive responses are rarely intended to discourage or defeat us; they’re most often an expression of the listener’s own fears, insecurities, or unconscious envy. But intentionality doesn’t matter; all that negativity affects us. Fear and rejection makes us less likely to do the things that excite and energize us. We’re dragged down.
At least as often, when we share positive or exciting information, we’re often on the receiving end of a Passive-Constructive response: “Oh, great. Me too,” or “I did that, only better.” I have to admit, when it comes to problematic responses, this is the one I’m most guilty of in the response matrix: it’s an area for improvement for me.
Why am I so invested in thinking about my interactions this way? Because learning about this core concept of positive psychology was a revelation for me about how tiny, almost unthinking actions- the dozens of responses I give in interactions each day- are actively, invisibly, adding up to have profound effects on me and the people I engage with. Like FOMO and FOBO, these responses are a force that I intuitively understood to exist, but didn’t have the words for them. Now that I do, I can spot them in the wild- and in myself. I’ve committed myself to, anywhere and everywhere possible, interacting with Active-Constructive responses.
Like any similar change, it’s required me to be more attentive to my words and my reactions, so it’s taking some time to feel consistently natural, but as personal improvement projects go, it’s worth it, because the impact has been real and powerful. When I have an interaction where I’m consistently Active-Constructive, I feel more energized, confident, and positive about the person I’ve just spoken to, and I know that they’ve received some of that energy too. I’ve seen that Active-Constructive responses bring it out the best in the people I’m with, even if they don’t start out that way; it’s contagiously good.
Seeing these outcomes that I can help to drive has caused me to feel very strongly that companies should be giving this concept a serious look, too, and implementing it throughout their culture- especially in all their processes for giving feedback. Companies have been paying a lot of attention to the art and science of feedback these days, and for good reason- there’s a large and growing body of research indicating that insufficient or toxic feedback stifles productivity, job satisfaction, employee retention, and team cohesion. Anyone looking to implement positive psychology principles in workplace feedback should think about the following things:
- It’s harder to give Active-Constructive feedback than to simply give criticism. The concept of “feedback=criticism” is ingrained in corporate culture, so just as I’ve had to consciously and methodically retrain my responses, managers will too. Most importantly, they must realize that giving Active-Constructive feedback requires them to actually understand their team’s work on a practical level- if your feedback isn’t specific and relevant, it isn’t Active-Constructive.
- Break existing patterns of when and how feedback is given. In most work environments, positive feedback is only given at the end of a project, applauding the team or employee for completing the job; feedback given during a process is typically only negative- if there’s nothing going wrong, there’s no need to say anything, the popular wisdom goes. This way of thinking needs to be disrupted. Active-Constructive feedback should occur throughout a process, as it will enhance the existing good developments and motivate more of them. My old jobs on Wall Street had this all wrong- positive feedback happened just once a year, at your end-year review. The rest of the time, we’d mostly be told if something wasn’t good.
- Don’t be shallow- engage the person AND the project. This goes back to knowing exactly what the person you’re giving feedback to is doing, rather than general responses to their attitude or quantity of output. Learn to ask questions, without judgment, about every aspect of a process you don’t personally understand, so that your feedback can be qualified and constructive.
- Empower people to call out unhelpful feedback. It’s important for everyone in a position to give important feedback to train and educate themselves in how Active-Constructive responding works and what it looks like, but it’s also important for people on the receiving end to know to expect better and more meaningful critiques. Teams should know what ideally Active-Constructive feedback looks like, and feel encouraged and safe to say when they aren’t getting useful messages.
If you’re ready and eager to dive into positive psychology, good for you – I hope you find it fascinating and experience the benefits! (That was an example of a good Active-Constructive statement, by the way.) I’ve given some recommended reading in my recent social media, but two great places to start are The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor and Flourish by Martin Seligman.
See you soon!