Use feedback to motivate your employees during the COVID-19 pandemic

We’re in the middle of a global crisis – a covid crisis. Economic stimulus packages, uncertainty about the future, employees forced to work from home, inevitable dismissals and many companies losing a large chunk of their revenue. In other words, our daily lives have in no time been turned upside down and we have to face a new reality that no one could’ve predicted. Feedback is going to be more important now, than you might think.

Our human needs remain the same

Even though many things feel overwhelming right now, and no one knows what the future holds, I’ve caught myself considering “What HASN’T changed since COVID-19 appeared?” Even though we’re faced with a completely new set of challenges in our external environment, the same internal mechanisms are shaping our human behaviors.

Everyone, regardless of age, height, shape and size, share the same 6 fundamental psychological needs that we wish to fulfill. If these needs are not met, we may feel incomplete and unhappy, but when they are met, we thrive. Even though the world around us has changed significantly in a very short amount of time, these fundamental needs have not. However, there may have been a shift in what feels more important to you right now.

In this article I will provide insights into the 6 psychological needs while looking at their relevance in terms of feedback. Finally, I will offer my suggestions for what to look out for in your own feedback during these times to ensure that we’re still connecting with each other and doing our best to improve our collective well-being.

The 6 universal psychological needs

Our human behavior is significantly affected by our needs, and how we attempt to satisfy them. One of the world’s most acknowledged business and life coaches, Tony Robbins, has developed a very simple framework to describe the 6 psychological needs that exist in us all:

  1. The need for certainty: What’s going to happen, what’s the plan?
  2. The need for uncertainty/variety: Surprises, new stimuli and change
  3. The need for significance: Feeling special, important or irreplaceable
  4. The need for connection/love: Having close relationships and connections with partners or colleagues
  5. The need for development and growth: Developing your understanding, knowledge and skills
  6. The need to contribute: Helping others and passing on knowledge

According to Robbins, we all have to fulfill these needs to various degrees, and they may be expressed in various ways. For instance, two people with a similarly intense need to feel significant might attempt to fulfill this either by gaining a large following on Instagram or by working 70 hours a week respectively. Some strategies will appear more long-term than others. What we all have in common, is the fact that it’s the combination and extent of these needs that motivate us to act in a certain way. For instance, a colleague with a need for close relationships with their co-workers might express this by actively seeking out cooperative projects.

If the needs are satisfied, the employee will display greater well-being and performance

A fundamental understanding about these psychological needs, is that people who experience having their needs met will generally be happier and perform better than employees who are not experiencing their needs being met. If an employee has a great need to be challenged and evolve within their work and doesn’t feel that this is fulfilled in their current position, they will begin to look around for alternative career paths.

Now you may think “But wait, haven’t the people who have achieved extraordinary results done so because of a lack of fulfilled needs and therefore an even greater hunger for success?” and to that I’ll say “Yes! But..”. If Michael Phelps’ need to feel significant had been met at a younger age, it may not have led to his great achievements later in life. However, my hypothesis is that most people don’t have the same ambitions as Michael Phelps and that 99.9% of the population would’ve given up long before making it as far as him. If you want your employees to thrive, the best thing you can do is to help them fulfill their individual needs.

Read more about good feedback.

The crisis is not changing our fundamental needs

Regarding the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to note that our fundamental needs haven’t changed. Our focus may shift slightly (for people with a great need for certainty, this time may be particularly challenging, and they may try to fulfill this in other ways and more insistently), but fundamentally they will stay the same. If my most important need is to grow and evolve, this will still be the case even though I’m working from home.

How does feedback relate to the fundamental psychological needs?

At Feedwork, we recommend breaking down feedback into three different types:

  1. Appreciative feedback
  • When you thank your co-worker for helping you with a project last week
  • When your boss tells you that she specifically enjoyed page 6 and 7 of your report
  1. Developing feedback
  • When you tell your co-worker what you think they can do differently to be more specific in their presentations
  • When you tell your co-worker how you think they can use their great sense of structure in other areas of their work
  1. Evaluating feedback
  • When you are told that your co-worker thought you did a better job than usual on a recent task
  • When you tell your employees that the current project is not at a satisfactory level yet

The reason why we believe that feedback should be broken down into these categories, is because each type feeds into our psychological needs:

  • The appreciative feedback feeds our need for connection and significance
  • The developing feedback feeds our need for growth
  • The evaluating feedback feeds our need for certainty

We need acknowledging feedback to establish trusting relationships with each other and to get the sense that we are contributing to the community. We need developing feedback to feel that we’re improving our skills and to experience that we’re growing every day and can take on increasingly challenging tasks. We need evaluating feedback to know whether our efforts led to a satisfying result, whether the customer enjoyed the meeting or whether my efforts throughout the year will result in a bonus. As humans, we generally prefer knowing that people did not like our presentations as opposed to not knowing at all. Try to remember the times you’ve delivered a product at work and heard nothing for it. Quite frustrating, isn’t it?

Healthy feedback helps you accommodate the well-being of your employees

Feedback isn’t just feedback, it’s a tool to help you cover fundamental psychological needs. Good, deliberate feedback has the power to support the fulfillment of these psychological needs.

Why connection is decreasing during these times, and what to consider in regard to feedback from a distance

If our fundamental psychological needs haven’t changed, but our working environments have, we risk creating a gap between our needs and our experiences. One of the natural effects of being forced to spend time apart is a decrease in connection. Not only because we are not physically close, but also because we may lose sight of what our co-workers are currently working on and miss out on informal brainstorming and water cooler chats.

Meanwhile, in times of great uncertainty in the workplace, there may be an increased need for certainty and reassurance both in terms of our current results, but also regarding the future. Below, you’ll find our specific suggestions for what you need to consider when working remotely – as the employer and employee respectively – in regard to the three types of feedback.

What can I do as an employer?

Appreciative feedback

Be especially mindful about “seeing” your employees and the results and the efforts they are delivering. Acknowledge every time you experience an employee making a difference during these times and praise the team for the small things that are keeping you going. This could be during your virtual check-ins with the team, where you take a minute to acknowledge the virtual brainstorming your employees have completed the past few days. Or it could be as simple as acknowledging how difficult it may be to balance working from home with two children, and that you see the efforts your employees are making.

Developing feedback

It may be easier to see results during these times, while the efforts behind them can be more difficult to spot. This means that we can easily judge the result and point out all of its flaws without knowing what went into this particular project and the challenges your employees may have faced. Ask your employees before you deliver critical feedback: “How did you reach this result?” and make sure you’ve been invited to provide critical feedback before doing so. The best way to provide feedback during this time is with your camera turned on, or alternatively over the phone. This way, your employee can see your body language or hear your tone of voice, which makes a huge difference in how they receive the feedback. Consider the fact that some employees may have an increased need for brainstorming and developing feedback on certain projects during this time. Communicate along every step of the way that you are available if they are in need of support.

Evaluating feedback

Keep your team and your employees up to date on what you know about the future. It’s better to be certain of bad news than not knowing anything. For instance, what are your expectations from your team the next few weeks?

At the same time, it may be a good idea to check in with your employees weekly or even daily, about their work and their efforts. Many employees may be insecure about whether they are performing sufficiently during these times and whether anyone is even noticing their hard work.

Read more on the 3 types of feedback.

What can I do as an employee?


Appreciative feedback

Acknowledge your co-workers (and your boss!) for the small things that are working well during these times. For instance, let your co-worker know how much you appreciate it when they ask about your personal life even if it doesn’t feel as important when you’re busy. Remember to thank the people that are helping you with your tasks. We’re all under pressure with our individual tasks under these difficult circumstances, which is why acknowledging the help of others is more important than ever.

Developing feedback

If you’re experiencing a lack of developing feedback or advice, you may have to start asking for it more frequently than you’ve had to in the past. Ask your co-workers and your boss if they can spare a minute to help you with a difficult task, maybe during your daily morning check-in. It can be helpful to have a few specific questions in mind to direct their feedback.

Evaluating feedback

If you have an increased need for certainty and reassurance during these times, let people know. Your boss may not be able to provide certainty about specific work-related conditions, for example if the company is about to dismiss a few employees, but ask yourself which specific parts of your work you need certainty and reassurance about and make sure they are reasonable to ask for. An example might be: “What am I expected to deliver over the next three weeks while working from home?”

Show compassion and humanity and give feedback from a distance 

The most important advice is to communicate openly about your specific needs during the COVID-19 crisis as well as your experience of how these needs are not met. In that way, we can ensure the fulfillment of our needs, improve our well-being and keep us motivated and high-performing during this unreal reality.

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