We all accept the value of the positive feedback - it increases the self-esteem of the other and may generate positive behaviors through the Pygmalion effect; social experiments in schools (Rosenthal study) have showed that expectations and positive feedback generate in the other one the desire to be “in the image and likeness of”, to confirm the hypothesis of the coach, of the professor, of the manager. Your expectations from the person standing in front of you come to life, are updated by him, as Pygmalion created a statue that came to life, because he believed in it.
But positive feedback can be bad. Here are two cases:
1. Unspecific, general - “good job, man”, “congratulations on how you treat others” - if you don't have arguments, it may sound fake, especially if the self-perception of the person about his/her performance is not good. And either way, the person is not aware of it, he/she doesn't know what to repeat next time in order to do it just as good.
2. Said for the sake of the emitter, not of the recipient - to offer positive feedback just for the others to like you, so you grow on them and, why not, on yourself.
And a few useful criteria-questions:
1. What will the recipient learn from this? Is it specific enough for him/her in order to learn something?
If I only say “congratulations, you did a good job”, it is possible that the person attributes the good job to whatever he wants. Adrian Stanciu gave such an example of defensive attribution during a conference, I will tell it as I remember it: let’s say you succeeded to cross a canal with your boat and during the crossing, because there was a good wind and you had nothing to do, you drank and got drunk. Adrian was saying that at the end, you may think, when giving yourself a feedback about your performance, something like: aha, I managed to do it because I was drunk (not in spite of!). I think it would be the same if somebody would tell you: congrats, amazing crossing. You may get to the same conclusion: I managed to do so because I was drunk. How helpful my “positive feedback” was!
2. Why do I give this feedback, what is the internal engine that generates this gesture? Who benefits more of it, I do or the recipient?
If it is only the pumping of my own ego and statute - I think twice. Most of the times, it's a mix - it helps me as well to see myself or others to see me as a generous person and I am also helping the other. It would, however, be good if the balance of the motivation would tip towards the other.
In order to help it tip a bit, I can, for example, change my transmission channel and method - I will not send an e-mail, I will tell it personally (it helps him even more to look him in the eye while I say it, even though, it would be more helpful for me to write it in an e-mail - it is faster, the other see as well that I am nice). Or, on the contrary, I won’t tell it when it’s just the two of us, but I’ll do it in public, during a meeting, if I know that he as well needs the respect of others.