#149: Is There an Epidemic of Negative Critique?
Positive reinforcement is one of the easiest and quickest ways to improve employee happiness and effectiveness.
In a Gallup study, a vast majority (67%) of employees who strongly agree that their manager focuses on their strengths or positive characteristics are engaged, compared with just 31% of those who indicate strongly that their manager focuses on their weaknesses.
For me there is an epidemic of what we call negative critique – at work and at home. As human beings we are motivated by learning new things and getting better at what we do; it’s why we learn musical instruments and take on personal sporting challenges. Dan Pink calls this mastery and it is core to driving personal motivation. Neuroscience tells us that the way we deliver feedback in many organisations impacts peoples well being (releasing stress hormones like cortisol), undermines motivation and therefore performance.
In the highest levels of sport, performance coaches work on a 7:1 ratio of positive, motivational feedback to negative, developmental feedback; that’s seven meaningful pieces of motivational feedback to one developmental. This is a massive shift for most organisations. I wonder when the last time you received that ratio of feedback or delivered it was.
What we’re not suggesting is that you sit down with every person in your team once a week and tell them seven things that there doing well, so you can share important developmental feedback. It is proactively looking for and catching people doing it right, in the moment. This might sound like a difficult shift, but you would be amazed by how many opportunities there are to do this in a day.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try it out, have a look at this:
What did you pick up? That I got three sums right or one wrong?
It’s too easy to catch people screwing things up; however, when you recognise the positive in others, you make deposits in your human relationship bank account with that person. Now, if he or she does something wrong, you can point it out without devastating the relationship. Unfortunately, most relationships deteriorate to the point that the primary focus seems to be on catching the other person doing things wrong.
Consider feedback in the workplace for the moment, how much of it is focused on negative critique? I am guessing quite a bit. Maybe it is an epidemic?
For most, I suspect the mere mention of the word feedback leads to a sinking feeling in our stomach. For so long, feedback has been seen as the negative stuff; the stuff we don’t want to hear about and avoid at all costs.
Can you remember the last time someone told you how they appreciate something you do and what it means to them? It’s a lovely feeling. As human beings we are hard-wired to feel good when we make a positive difference to people around us, so when people tell us the difference we make, we love it and we tend to then do more of it as a result.
It’s easy to focus on what we haven’t got, what we haven’t done, where we could be, how it would be better if…, what the problem is and so on. Sometimes it’s about asking the question ‘What can we celebrate and appreciate round here?’ to start thinking about what is good at the moment. Sometimes it’s as simple as just saying thank you to someone for something. You might be surprised how much people like that from you.
When we affirm, appreciate and point out the good stuff, it starts happening more and more and we build positive momentum. This, in turn, generates more positivity and confidence spreads and grows.
Scientific studies of what motivates and drives us at work, tell us that we want to be recognised, valued, appreciated and acknowledged for what we do and how we have contributed.
Intuitive wisdom tells us that, when people feel valued as a person at work (and not just a unit of production), they feel happier about their company. When a person feels happier about the company they work for, they are prepared to invest more of themselves and more discretionary effort into their life at work. When you give someone a contract to work for you, they have to turn up for work, but how much of their heart and soul they put in will vary, depending on how they perceive they have been treated by their company.
More than you expected?
Catching people doing things right is a new lens on the way you view others’ behaviour and performance. It’s about recognising effort and input as well as final product and output. It is saying thank you and expressing gratitude. It is commenting, even on seemingly small things that someone is doing to move things forward, even if incrementally. It is looking at strengths, like patience, perseverance, kindness and generosity, even if there is no positive outcome as a result.
It is a positive conversation, asking the other person what they are doing that they feel is contributing to a positive outcome. It is asking them how they are feeling about their efforts. It is helping them to recognise that sometimes, doing the “right thing” doesn’t always lead to immediate positive results, but it’s important to do the “right thing” anyhow.
The more that you catch yourself and others doing things right, the stronger this “right-catching” muscle becomes, and the more focused that lens will be. Catching people doing things right is a relationship building and self-efficacy enhancing tool. If done properly, it will build competences, skills, knowledge and mindsets that we all wish to see in our workplace, in our children, in each other and in ourselves.
When an employee is on the receiving end of positive feedback they will be encouraged to repeat whatever it was that elicited the positive feedback. As a leader, you can take that aspect of human behaviour to the bank, but if you want to make a habit of “catching people doing things right,” you will have to be certain that it is well executed and well delivered.
There are several key aspects about catching people doing things right that you need to know. First of all, catching people doing things right has to be timely. When you observe the correct behaviour, in other words, when you see the behaviour that’s adding value – act. Here are two things to consider:
- Be sincere. Positive reinforcement that comes across as insincere or superficial is not effective. I once had a manager on my team who would blurt out: “You’re the best!” to employees almost every day and in almost any type of interaction. The most common reaction he got to that statement was an eye roll! The praise wasn’t sincere and his direct reports knew it; instead of increasing their respect for him, his glib, insincere feedback actually diminished his stature in their eyes.
- Be specific. Explain why the “good stuff” that you just caught and reinforced is contributing to the organisation in a material way. Imagine you are a customer service advisor handling a challenging customer on the phone. As you hang up from this stressful interaction, your boss approaches you and says: “You know, John, the manner in which you just handled that customer call was just about perfect! You were curious, used the Conversation Cycle really well, didn’t get flustered, projected a great image of both yourself and the company, solved the problem and probably kept us from losing a valuable customer. Thank you!” The time required to deliver that timely, specific, and meaningful feedback? Less than 30 seconds. The length of time the employee will remember that feedback and continue to be inspired by it? Weeks!
Here are 7 things you can do right now to start that change:
- Seven Pennies: I learned about this mechanism from an old boss. At the time, he knew staff were doing great things every day with customers and that he’d miss those things if he was tied to his desk. Each workday morning, he would put seven pennies in his right front pants pocket. For an hour, he’d tour around the office, looking for people doing things right. When he found one, he’d wait for the appropriate moment to pull them aside, praise what he saw, thank them and move on. In two minutes, he validated their contribution and commitment. As he left, he’d take a penny from his right front pocket and move to his left front pocket. He kept meandering through the office until he’d delivered at least seven praises in that hour.
- Be specific with praise: Remember that effective praising has to be specific. Just walking around saying “thanks for everything” is meaningless. If you say “great job” to a poor performer and the same thing to a good performer, you’ll sound ridiculous to the poor performer and you’ll demotivate the good performer.
- Rock star applause: Sometimes applause from the top (or just slightly more senior people) can work wonders to boost motivation. Galvanise the leadership levels at your site or in your division and get them to acknowledge and celebrate your teams. This might mean the leaders being out in the teams, talking to people and giving pats on the back or it might be that they are up for creating some real energy by clapping, whooping and cheering – treating your people like rock stars!
- Praise progress: If people’s goals are observable and measurable, you don’t have to wait until the goal is completed before you can give any praise – you can praise progress. It’s really important to catch people doing things right, approximately right, in the beginning, as they’re journeying towards completely right.
- Small change, big difference: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room”. The best coaches know this. Often the easiest, smallest things to change, make a great big difference to performance and to the customer, so, don’t make it difficult – make it easy; become expert at spotting the small things that will make a big difference…and position them like that for your people.
- It’s all about creating a climate where you really care about people. If you really care about your team, let them know it, cheer them on. Your people do a great number of things right every day. Stop and notice!
- Catch people doing things right provides satisfaction and motivates good performance. So remember: give praise immediately, make it specific and encourage the person to keep up the good work. It’s a great way to interact with and affirm the people in your life – and it will make you feel good about yourself too. You will enjoy better performance and better relationships with the people entrusted into your care.