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Pour some praise, not just cold water

You are a young child, nervously taking your report card to your parents. You have done quite well, a few ‘A’ grades; some ‘B’s; one ‘C’. Your father looks at the report. He scans down with his finger, stopping at the single ‘C.’ He frowns and puts the piece of paper down. He admonishes you for that low grade, saying you have not put in the effort he requires. He tells you to pull up your socks or there will be consequences. You leave, your ears ringing with shame. He does not mention your ‘A’ grades even once.

How do you feel?

You are now a manager in a large organization. You have been busy working on an important project. You’ve really put in the hours. It’s been difficult, but you’ve made some important breakthroughs—even though many things remain undone. You go for an update meeting with your boss, who listens to your report of the progress made without comment. When you come to the issues still pending, your boss suddenly gets animated, telling you off, reminding you of the expectations the company has, warning you not to come again with so poor a report.

How do you feel?

You have become the CEO of the corporation. You are about to present your new strategy to the board. You have worked truly hard on this with your team, in fresh and innovative ways. There is much to admire in the new strategy, and you are happy and proud to present it. You notice as you present, though, that there is not much nodding or validation coming from the board members present. When you finish, the very first response is from a vocal director who points out that there are many glaring flaws in what you have presented, and that it is a mediocre and unsatisfactory attempt. A second director adds more criticism. The chair now wakes up and intervenes, to tell you to go back and work on the failings that have been pointed out and come back with something better at the next board meeting.

How do you feel?

Are these not common experiences? We put in the effort, we put in the hours, we give it our best shot—and still get criticized. Praise and positivity, it seems, are rare commodities in this life. Most people just want to focus on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.

As someone who watches leaders and managers at work all the time, I can tell you what the result of the three scenarios above will be. The person doing the presenting or reporting leaves deflated, fatigued, frustrated, and dispirited. If the aim in providing harsh feedback was to make the student, manager or CEO perform better, that has failed. We have gone back several steps, rather than advancing. We have not caused engagement, but the opposite. The person that has been upbraided has gone into “fight or flight” mode, and is now more fearful than hopeful.

Indeed, researchers at Gallup confirm this. They found that positive attention is thirty times more powerful than negative attention at creating engagement and better performance. In other words, if you want to encourage people to do better, focus first on their strengths and the things that they’ve done well—not just the negatives. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall point out in their landmark book, Nine Lies About Work, if our default setting as parents and leaders is to tell people off and focus on their failings, we do them—and our organizations—a great disservice.

If you genuinely want better performance and wish it in your children and employees and team members, you have to focus your attention on their strengths, not their failings. Their greatest opportunities for growth will come from things they are good at. A good leader instinctively knows this. A poor one keeps harping on about what’s not happening.

But wait, you ask: surely people have weaknesses that need to be addressed? We can’t just ignore failings—we have to correct them. Of course we do. You are not being asked to be happy-clappy and high-fiving your people all the time. If mistakes are being made, that situation must be fixed. But there’s a subtle point here: fixing someone’s mistakes may be necessary, but remediation does not lead to excellence. As Buckingham and Goodall put it: correcting someone’s grammar will not turn them into a poet! Excellence, they remind us, is not the opposite of failure.

Why are so many leaders fixated on negatives? Because that is what their own parents and teachers did to them; because power over others is misunderstood to mean the power to admonish, rather than the power to uplift; and because we find it difficult to see merit in others unless it mirrors strengths we ourselves have.

Are you a leader truly wishing to create excellence, rather than just correcting mistakes? Know that excellence comes from positive reinforcement of good performance. Use a ratio of at least three to one when dishing out positive and negative attention.

(Sunday Nation, 4 December 2022)

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