Elevate your appreciation and deliver better feedback

photo of person writing on notebook

A couple of years ago, my engineering team, which happens to be distributed over four continents and works asynchronously around the clock, was struggling to provide valuable weekly updates.

Most of the updates were too generic, some too specific. A few were too verbose, and others were too superficial.

Shall we write down every single task we get done, or shall we only document larger projects? And to which degree? These were the most common questions during one on ones.

I realized that one engineer was providing excellent reports. They were informative but not too verbose, they were absolutely on point. I wished everyone was publishing with that style, including me!

I sent this message to the team: “Last week, John Smith published a great weekly update. It was informative, concise, and well redacted. I felt very proud about it. If you are looking for a great example, look no further, that is a great model for everyone. Well done!”

Two weeks later, every single update was almost as perfect. In a month, all our updates were on point.

Appreciation is a strong form of feedback and it can be sharpened to achieve extraordinary results.

Every time we want to acknowledge, motivate, or reinforce good behaviors, we naturally resort to appreciation. 

We say “Well done!” to our toddler who finally puts on their shoes by themselves for the first time, or “Great job!” to our team member who completed an excellent project on time and under budget. But it’s just not enough to have long-term effects.

When people complain they don’t receive enough feedback, they mean that they wonder if anyone notices how hard they are working and if anyone cares about their contribution. They are signaling a lack of appreciation.

However, to obtain extraordinary results, it’s not enough to raise the quantity of recognition, we need to elevate its quality as well. To do so, we can start practicing the “Situation – Behaviour – Impact” framework. This tool is terrific for both beginners and more seasoned managers. Used correctly, it is quite a powerful instrument.

SBI demystified

Every time we want to give a piece of feedback, we follow the “Situation, Behaviour, Impact” (SBI)  framework to package high-quality, easy to consume, and highly leverageable nuggets of input.

Situation” frames your feedback in time and space. It makes it contextual

  • “Yesterday on our way to school.”
  • “Last week at the team meeting.” 
  • “This morning while having breakfast.”

Behaviour” represents an action that was performed. It’s important to describe it with a verb and to be as factual as possible, ideally like it was recorded by a camera or a microphone, without any judgment or assignment of intent to it:

  • “You thanked your sister for her help.” 
  • “You offered to pick up that project.”
  • “You complimented your grandchild for his new haircut.”

Impact” is a description of the emotional state that this behavior had on you

  • “It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.”
  • “I was impressed by your sense of ownership.”
  • “It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.”

Let’s combine the above examples in order to see them together:

  • Yesterday on our way to school, you thanked your sister for her help. It felt so heartwarming seeing you two supporting each other.
  • Last week at the team meeting, you offered to pick up that project. I was impressed by your sense of ownership.
  • This morning while having breakfast, you complimented your grandchild for his new haircut. It makes me happy to see how you have moved past your disagreements.

Now that we know how to produce a powerful nugget of appreciation, let’s lay out the three ways to deliver these nuggets and the purpose behind them.

Appreciation in Private

The most common form of appreciation happens in private. We deliver it directly to the person we want to recognize. It can come in various forms: a private conversation with our child, in the car, on the way to school. It can be part of a one-on-one with one of our team members. It can be handwritten on a holiday card we send overseas to a distant relative.

Appreciation in private is a great way to reinforce personal positive behaviors and provide relished validation.

Appreciation in Public

They say “Criticize in private, praise in public”. Well, this is just that! Appreciation in public is a great way to showcase positive behaviors. It amplifies the validation towards the individual, inspires others, providing good models to follow. It can be a praise to our child in front of their siblings, a compliment to our team member during a meeting, sometimes even comments on social media may do the job.

Appreciation in Absence

I consider this the ultimate form of appreciative feedback. It goes a long way when rewarding high performers. It can be delivered by itself, or in addition to the previous two forms. It happens when the appreciation —packaged in the SBI form — is not delivered to the subject, but rather to an involved third party.

It can be a praise to our child’s best friend who is particularly polite when visiting our house, delivered to their parents in the form of a handwritten note.

It can be an email to the CEO of a partner company, praising their employee who contributed to the success of a recent conference which was organized together.

If we look carefully, we are surrounded by signs of appreciation in absence. Every public monument, statue, or street that is named after a person, is a form of appreciation in absence. Probably a little too much for our purpose, but you got the point, didn’t you?

To elevate our appreciation and to reward positive behaviors, I say this: “appreciate often, appreciate properly, and appreciate with purpose.” 

Trust me, wonders will happen!


Thanks to Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Laila Faisal, Letizia Barbi, Renzo Canepa, Tom White for the review of this essay.

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead a team of engineers across three continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

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