Mentsch Management

What Are You Good At? The Art of Positive Feedback

Times have been hard. Even dark. Many years ago, I faced some dark times personally, and frankly, I was floundering. In those days I carried a checklist with me all day and the greatest satisfaction I had was crossing things off that list. I was busy and accomplishing a lot; my superiors were thrilled, and I received numerous dopamine hits as I crossed item after item off my list. Until, one day, I stopped myself and wondered, “Who would I be without this list? Who am I without these external validators?”

I found myself going down a dark rabbit hole of self-doubt, until my conversation with Tzvi,* a longtime friend. We were catching up and suddenly he turned to me and said, “Hey, Josh, you know what you’re really good at?” And he proceeded to describe an area in which he thought I excelled. Though I wish I could recall the specific point, I do not remember what he told me. Nevertheless, that tiny drop of feedback shot me right out of that rabbit hole and restored my sense of self. 

A few weeks later, still aloft on that cloud of positivity, I was at a social function when I heard Tzvi walk over to someone and say, “Hey, David, do you know what you’re really good at?” Oh well, I thought. I guess I’m not that special!

Psychologists have observed that not all emotions are created equal. We gravitate toward the negative far more than the positive. From Jim Collins’ work,1 to research done by Gallup,2 to articles from researchers at Yale and beyond, it is clear that we are more successful, happy and fulfilled when we know our strengths. As Ken Robinson notes,3 we can be our best, in our “element,” only when we find “the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.” Instead, unfortunately, “too many think they’re not good at anything.”

At times like these, not only do we get down on “life, the universe and everything,” but we can be down on ourselves. Try coming up with four weaknesses or areas in your life that could use improvement. Now try coming up with four strengths. Most people will quickly arrive at their four weaknesses and will take far longer to come up with a list of strengths. That’s where leaders, managers, parents and friends come in.  

In a recent article,4 David Brooks refers to middle managers as “the unsung heroes of our age.” At a time of seemingly widening division and outright conflict, we need people who can struggle to resolve tension, who can promote belonging at home, with their teams at work, and within their communities:

So how do these managers work their magic? When I hear people in these roles talk about their work and its challenges, I hear, at least among the most inspiring of them, about the ways they put people over process, about the ways they deeply honor those right around them.

Brooks refers to their approach not simply as management, but rather as “ethical leadership.” The lesson here goes beyond its resonance with the conceptual—aligned with mentsch management!—and impacts on the practical. While Brooks himself points to eight applications of ethical leadership, for many of us managers there exist manifold tugs on our limited attention—and thus we are unable to make the time to give positive attention to those around us. Classically, feedback is given once a year, or if something went terribly wrong. But imagine channeling our inner Tzvis and giving positive feedback regularly. It is likely that a good number of our employees are struggling like I was. Imagine what we could do for them, and ultimately what it could do for the company or organization, by letting them know, after they’ve just completed an endeavor you were genuinely impressed with, how great they are at that endeavor.

To be a mentsch, a manager should be giving consistent and honest feedback. The feedback can, of course, include areas that need to be improved on. But our employees will often already know where and how they are falling short. It is just as critical, if not more important, to share positive feedback as well. 

Our incredible OU “people team”—the professionals in the Human Resources department—has pioneered a new feedback plan this year as part of our commitment to fostering a culture of ongoing feedback. We established five touchpoints throughout the year, including initial goal setting, two career conversation days and a mid-year check-in, culminating in a traditional performance review, all of which aim to create more opportunities for reflection, discussion and refinement of goals. The results? Managers and employees both benefit greatly! 

In Parashat Vayechi, Yaakov famously switched his hands when giving berachot to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. While one would expect him to place his right hand on the older grandson and his left hand on the younger, he actually did the opposite and crisscrossed his hands. Why not just switch the boys’ positions?

According to the Netziv, this teaches us that Ephraim surpassed Menashe in ruchniyut, in the spiritual realm, which is above the natural ways of the world. Menashe, however, was superior to Ephraim in gashmiyut, in all physical matters of the world. 

Yaakov knew what he was doing, especially having learned from his earlier episode with Eisav. Rather than discount Menashe’s material and physical gifts and talent, certainly a necessity for the future of the nation, Yaakov kept him on his right. After all, he was still the firstborn! Yaakov therefore simply crossed his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, to indicate that the blessing of spiritual leadership would be given to Ephraim.

When blessing our children on Friday night, in addition to giving them the traditional berachah, my wife and I try to point out to our children something specific they’ve accomplished or an aspect in which they aspire to grow and succeed. We try to channel the berachah toward something in particular. We tell them what they’re good at. 

A few years after Tzvi helped me out, he was mulling over some life decisions and was questioning his own abilities. To that point it hadn’t occurred to me that although he had helped others with his suggestions, perhaps others hadn’t returned the favor. “You know what you’re really good at?” I told him. “You’re really good at telling people what they’re good at.” He looked at me, stunned, not knowing what I was talking about. So I explained—passing back to him the gift he had given me and my family and many others. 

Whom will you bless next with their own gifts? 

*Not his real name.

Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph is executive vice president/chief operating officer of the OU.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at