The Seventh Key: Positive Feedback and Active Listening

The Seventh Key: Positive Feedback and Active Listening

I proposed that management innovation requires seven keys to unlock at the same time. I will now discuss in some detail the Seventh Key—Improving communication style by active listening and positive feedback.

In Japan, there seems to be a culture of bosses to not commend their subordinates as if it were an unnecessary expenditure. Some may think it’s their job to reprimand. Some feel appraisals make people slack off.

I am totally against this trend and style. No one likes to be reprimanded. Some are not used to being complemented, and their response may be awkward, but this has nothing to do with the positive act of commending people. When execution results are not good, you would not complement their work, but, you can appreciate their efforts and thank them. You can encourage them to learn from their experience and advise how they can avoid making the same mistakes.

I have coined this general approach as “positive feedback.” Of course, it’s not about always complementing people no matter what.

Commitment to Positive Feedback

Actually, positive feedback is easy. To move forward with management innovation, carrying out positive feedback is mandatory. People may quibble about it, but they mange to get started. The results are immediate and find the experience to be like the egg of Columbus–a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact.

First, you start with “taking advantage of all opportunities to complement no matter how small, right on the spot.” Japanese men tend to be notoriously bad at this. It’s not that they intentionally hold back or they have tried and had bad experiences. They are just not accustomed to do so. If your staff or colleagues do something thoughtful or produce results, complement them with no hesitation. At home, express appreciation to your family for the slightest things. That is all. If you start positive feedback at home, it will become easier to do so at work and visa versa.

Also, please remember to “complement on the spot, and discuss at some later time problems you identified and areas for improvements.” Most people tend to pay complements followed by pointing out problems as if the complement was a preamble. Just as they are feeling good about the rare moment to receive complements, they will be very disappointed to think it was just a good gesture to balance with the criticism and the positive effect is dramatically reduced. It may even generate negative feelings of being betrayed. So, give yourself some time between complementing on the spot and providing critical feedback. Make it your personal rule to follow-up with any critical feedback on the following day, for example.

If the execution results are not positive, but it was good effort and the process was sound, thank them for their efforts. Good effort and process may not have lead to good results this time, but it is bound to produce good results in the near future. So, it is best to express your appreciation for trying hard and encourage them to continue down the right path. Becoming short-tempered or making sarcastic comments will only discourage them to continue.

Even if the results are not so good, expressing appreciation for their effort is fundamentally important. If the results are not so good and the effort and the process leaves something to be desired, the boss may have a bone to pick with them. If there are signed that they tried, thanking them for trying is a good starting point.

Your staff has made a choice to use an important part of their life to work together with you. In countries with declining birthrate like Japan, there are less people and they have more choice. It’s time to graduate from the old school to first warn, then reprimand, and belittle your people. It’s unacceptable by global standards. People will flee from bosses that do not provide clear instructions and guidance and just complain.

In the face of adversity and failure, encourage people to learn from the experience, suggest next steps and help them to get over it and move on. This takes a great leadership. Many bosses react to failure with anger, even if the failure may have been due to lack of appropriate supervision. While it is inadvisable for a boss to swear in front of an employee, it is absolutely unacceptable to swear at an employee.

If you are angry, even if you think you are in control of your emotions to conceal it, employees will sooner or later recognize the anger through explicit and body language. This will spear through an employees heart and it must be avoided because the responsibility for lack of results usually lies on poor supervision rather than on poor performance by the staff. If they dog it, the boss should consider it to be a sign of problems with supervision and organizational management.

Commitment to Active Listening

Active listening means listening seriously to what people have to say. Looking in the eye, sympathetic nodding, listen with real interest. If you are thinking about something else or hoping to end the conversation soon, the employees will see right through the act to pretend to be serious and be really discouraged. If you fail in this fundamental communication, not only will they never tell you what they really think, but also you may risk creating an enemy.

Active listening is not about technique—it’s about just being very serious and genuinely interested. Anybody can do this immediately and it’s simple.

Key is to ask questions without hesitation based on your interest. Appropriate or well thought out questions are very pleasing for those being asked, and they will be encouraged to tell you more.

It’s better not to ask questions that you yourself can find the answer with a little research. Some will just respond and not care. Many will take this to be sign that you are not so interested and while it may not discourage the employee, the discussion may become less lively.

There are situations where active listening is critical for management innovation. First, it is when you are talking to your customers and users. To understand how your products and services are perceived and to determine areas for improvement to recover or gain position, you must genuinely understand your customers and users. Fundamental improvement of existing business or new business development cannot be had without seriously listening to them.

Another is when you are trying to hear the voices of your staff and people on the ground to understand the real situation. Why has the organization become so bureaucratic? How can we regain organizational ability to innovate? You must seriously listen to people at all levels of the organization to figure out the root of the problem.

In both situations, if we are genuinely interested, they will tell us the truth. If our listening attitude is less than sincere they will be dubious and close their mind. It is the most basic of basic skills for anyone, but surprising many are not so good at this. We should all want to acquire and practice this skill.

Benefits of Positive Feedback and Active Listening

When you thoroughly commit your organization to practice positive feedback and active Listening, the relationship among the people will inevitably be more constructive.

In times prone to stress like when you are implementing management innovation, positive feedback and active listening should be adapted to develop smooth interpersonal relationship and to effectively convey the CEO’s new policy.

Such organization will not become bureaucratic. It will be vibrant and exciting place to work. Even if the business is facing hard times, it can keep people feeling positive. It will become critical source of energy to execute management innovation.

For any suggestions or questions, please feel free to send me a mail to I will get back to you right away.


▼ 7keys to accelerate Management Innovation
Need Seven Keys to Start and Accelerate Management Innovation
The First Key:Change Vision and Strategy, and Let Everybody Know
The Second Key:Rapid Improvement of Existing Businesses
The Third Key:Developing Multiple New Businesses
The Fourth Key:Management Innovation Team
The Fifth Key:Human Resource Development Committee
The Sixth Key:Innovation in Boss-subordinate Relationship
The Seventh Key:Positive Feedback and Active Listening