How to amplify the awesome things your people do
What was your first thought when looking at the image on the left? Did you pick up on the fact that three sums are right, or one was wrong?
It’s too easy to catch people screwing things up and where the focus is on catching people doing things wrong, you’ll typically find the relationship on a terminal trajectory. On the other hand, when you recognise the positive in others, you make deposits in your human relationship bank account with that person so that when something goes wrong, you can talk about it without devastating the relationship.
Consider feedback in the workplace for the moment, how much of it is focused on negative critique? For some, the mere mention of the word feedback is linked to unhappy connotations associated with the negative stuff we don’t want to hear about.
This epidemic of negative critique is not our fault. ‘Negativity bias’ is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, and many industries, from journalism to politics, exploit the fact that negative thoughts, emotions, or events have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than their neutral or positive equivalents.
It’s not our fault. It’s an instinct, hard-wired into our DNA. We’re experts at negative pattern recognition, thanks to an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala, otherwise known as the ‘lizard brain’. From the early days of human evolution, this primitive set of neurons alerts us to danger in every new situation and triggers a fight or flee response so over time we create patterns of potential danger even when there isn’t any. Negative thinking is an instinct that’s hard to crack, but it’s essential we do so if we want to spread organisational harmony, rather than disillusion and fear.
One study of healthcare workers found that when employees were working for a boss they disliked, they had significantly higher blood pressure. According to British scientist George Fieldman, this boss-induced hypertension could increase the risk of coronary heart disease by one-sixth and the risk of stroke by one-third.
Can you remember the last time someone told you how much they appreciated something you do and what it means to them? It’s a lovely feeling. We feel good when we make a positive difference to people around us, so when people tell us about the difference we make, we love it and it tends to inspire us to do more of what’s been appreciated as a result.
It’s easy to focus on what we haven’t got, what we haven’t done, where we could be, how things would be better if… and so on. Moving towards thought patterns that ask, ‘what can we celebrate and appreciate round here?’ shifts our focus onto what is good right now. Sometimes it’s as simple as just saying thank you to someone but whatever you choose to do, you might be surprised how much people like these small gestures from you.
When we affirm, appreciate and point out the good stuff people are doing, it starts to snowball and build momentum, people repeat the praised behaviour. This, in turn, generates more positive behaviours and confidence spreads and grows. Scientific studies about 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.
Positive vs. negative critique
Intuitive wisdom tells us that when people feel valued as a person at work, they feel happier about their company. When a person feels happier about the company they work for, they are prepared to invest more energy and discretionary effort into their life at work. A contract to work is just that, a formal arrangement for a capable person with the skills you need to turn up and fulfil a role; how much heart, soul, creativity and energy they put in depends very much on how they perceive they are treated by their company.
Positive reinforcement is one of the easiest and quickest ways to improve employee happiness and effectiveness. And it is simple coaching approach!
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.
As human beings we are motivated by learning new things and getting better at what we do. It’s why we learn musical instruments or take on personal sports challenges. Dan Pink calls this mastery[i] and it’s core to driving personal motivation. Neuroscience tells us that the way we deliver feedback can undermine motivation and therefore performance.
[i] Pink, D .H. Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us Riverhead Books 2009
At the highest levels of sport, performance coaches work to a ratio of seven pieces of meaningful, positive, motivational feedback to one negative, developmental piece. This is a massive shift for most organisations. I wonder how many of us remember the last time we received or delivered feedback to that ratio?
Right now, most of us don’t give or receive anywhere near the amount of praise that we should. As a result, we’re much less productive, and in many cases, completely disengaged in our jobs. According to Gallup and the US government, the number-one reason people leave their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated.”
What we’re not suggesting is that you sit down with every person in your team once a week and tell them seven things they are doing well, just so you can then share important developmental feedback.
Encouraging behaviours to show up is about being very clear about what good looks like and ensuring you are validating that every day through what you say and do. The focus is on proactively looking for people doing things right and praising that behaviour in-the-moment. This might sound like a difficult shift, but you would be amazed how many opportunities there are to do this in a day.
Catching people doing things right is a new lens on the way we 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. It is looking at strengths, like patience, perseverance, kindness and generosity, even if there is no direct business outcome as a result.
It can be a conversation asking someone how they are feeling about their efforts, helping them recognise that sometimes, doing the ‘right thing’ doesn’t always lead to immediate results, but it’s important to do the ‘right thing’ anyhow.
The more you catch yourself and others doing things right, the stronger your ‘doing it right’ muscle becomes. It’s a relationship building, self-efficacy tool that builds competency, skills, knowledge and mindsets that we all wish to see in our workplace, our children, in each other and in ourselves.
The most important thing to remember is that when you catch someone doing something right, react in-the-moment – positive feedback is at its most potent when it is timely.
Six things you can do right now
It is up to leaders to bring out the best in people by creating a climate where ‘doing your best’ is routine. The main thing you can do to achieve that is to focus less on fixing what’s going wrong and highlight and celebrate what’s going right.
Here are six things you can do right now to start that change:
You’re awesome: Pick a person on your team. Reflect deeply on what they are good at. Listen into their next conversation and note all the good things they say, then go and tell them these things….and only these things. Be specific. Be positive. Be enthusiastic. Be grateful. Be sincere. Then be quiet and walk away. This small exercise will be so worth it; your subject might initially be suspicious, but they’ll soon realise there’s no sting in the tail, and they’ll feel incredibly valued. More of the good stuff will show up every day.
Ask yourself; do I leave an afterglow or an aftermath?
Seven pennies: I learned this one from an old boss. Each morning, he would put seven pennies in his right-hand trouser pocket. During the day, he’d walk around the office, listening and looking for people doing things right. When he found one, he’d take the person to one side, praise what he’d seen, thank them and move on. In a simple two-minute conversation, he validated their contribution and commitment. As he left, he’d take a penny from his right-hand trouser pocket and move it to the left-hand pocket, he continued this until he’d delivered at least seven pieces of praise.
Be specific with praise: Remember that effective praise must be specific. Just 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 more senior people can work wonders to boost motivation. Galvanise other leaders at your site or in your division and get them to talk to your people, acknowledge and celebrate their efforts – a pat on the back from an unexpected person can have a massive effect. It might be they’re 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 deliver praise – you can praise progress and affirm decision-making, catching people doing things right on the journey towards completion to keep them motivated.
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 and recognising the small things that will make a big difference… and position them like that for your people.
If you really care about getting the best from your team, let them know it, cheer them on. Your people do a lot of things right every day. Stop and notice!
Catching 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 relationships with the people entrusted into your care and improve your team’s performance.