When things go right


We American leaders tend to be a critical lot. We like to pull things apart, critique, problem-solve and figure out what can and did go wrong. Even when things go well, we’re constantly nitpicking, finding the errors and fixing, or anticipating fixing things. Critiquing has its place in our culture and with good reason; it’s how we learn and do better the next time.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes the things we want to fix can’t actually be fixed, especially when it comes to the people that report to us and surround us at work. A common refrain is (often said with irony) “Work would be great if it weren’t for the people”.

No matter how much our head tells us that we can’t change others we seem to have a hard time taking this into our hearts. We mean well, as we all want things around us to be perfect, including the people. But when was the last time you changed when you received a criticism? It’s generally not a great strategy to help others improve without some attention to what’s going right.

One of the most common things I hear from a leader’s stakeholders is that they don’t feel the leader is giving enough praise and encouragement. It’s time to balance your criticisms with some positivity:

Notice: Your critical demeanor may have clouded you from seeing what’s good. I believe you can “practice” and train yourself to look for things that are going right by the people around you. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. And it can make a world of difference to your ability to lead others to do the “right things”. Start today. What if you spent the entire day looking for what’s right?

Let them know you’ve noticed: No matter how small the “right” thing you’ve noticed is, say it out loud to the person you’ve seen doing it. Put yourself in their shoes. A little bit of noticing and letting them know what you observe can go a long way, especially if you have a habit of being critical.

Don’t forget to give credit where credit is due, especially for the big triumphs. Make sure that those who matter (the rest of the team, the “higher ups”, your peers) know that you are cognizant of the fact that you can’t lead alone. It takes followers who are doing the right things for a leader to be successful. Call out these “right things” by name to others, and be specific.

Find ways to celebrate. We are all too serious and professional for celebration – or are we? What keeps you from having a little fun in honor of the right things? Most people enjoy recognition, and celebration is a great way to do so. Ask the people who are doing the “right things” what celebration might mean to them (within appropriate boundaries).

Even those of us with critical tendencies can find things that are going well with others so take a few moments to notice and compliment them out loud. Start today.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

14 comments on “When things go right

  1. Positive feedback and public recognition of accomplishments is free except for a small investment of your time. That investment builds a team, increases morale, promotes open communication, and makes people more receptive to criticism or correction when you have to dispense that.

    The current pastor of my Church closes every communication by thanking the recipient for something. I have taken that habit to my business and find it is a great way to keep the tone positive and things moving in the right direction. Even if you disagree with someone you can say “Thank you for your prompt response” or “Thank you for your honest opinion on this issue”. Thankfully I haven’t had to fire anyone lately, but if I did I would try to close with something like “Thank you for your efforts on behalf of the company.”

    So: thanks for a great article, Mary Jo!


  2. Aside from being conditioned to look for the mistakes first, leaders are often focused on “managing up.” The higher one goes the less the likelihood of compliments being the norm (not that its right).
    Lower level employees are in a different mindset and the leader must be aware of the mileage they get out of “emotional deposits.” I used to send thank you notes to an employees home address. I was always taken aback when I would later see that note pinned to their workstation.

  3. Mark Miller said “Lousy leaders pursue excellence but
    don’t celebrate progress or build community.” in his blog post http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/a-vp-at-chic-fil-a-on-positive-environments/

    That phrase rang true as I was reading your blog. Leaders need to make time to praise the progress their team is making.

    We wrote about the power of using promotional material to drive home the emotion of teambuilding and praise. http://www.level2sportswear.com/blog/bid/270718/You-Decide-Is-It-More-Than-Just-a-T-Shirt#.USaoXB3WigO

    Sometimes small things have a HUGE impact and it starts with recognition.

  4. I often find that the good leaders I work with have the Kaizen-esque approach to everything, i.e. that nothing is every finished or perfect and that the best companies/teams/processes are always looking for improvements. What they fail to do too often is communicate this well with their team. Sharing your vision, pulling your team together and then recognising success in the way suggested here. Thats when we get great leaders!

  5. Hal, thanks for the reminder from Ken Blanchard. It certainly works with children too!

    Tom, its great that your pastor is such a good role model. I think we often lack role models, but when we see it in action, we can see it work.

    Doug, what a wonderful example you set – sending thank you cards to someone’s home address. I like the idea of cards because they are “pinnable” and can be saved forever.

    Tariq, thanks for the reinforcement.

    Craig, I find perfectionism to be an enemy of great leadership. Striving for it should be tempered with praise, don’t you think?

  6. It amazes me why articles like yours need to be published. How do people climb the ladder being self centered. It is appreciated to read articles like this one that you wrote but people should not be reminded to praise and understand the people that work for them. How some people get into management is a mystery.

  7. Wow, Jim, what a provocative response, and I appreciate the fact that it made me stop and think. I work with and write for the best leaders out there, and they often just need a reminder. We all – even the leaders who naturally praise – can get into habits (like criticism) that may not send the message we want to send for lots of reasons; stress, our natural tendencies, etc. I believe everyone has the potential to change, but it sometimes requires awareness first. I see this post in particular as a reminder to the best leaders who know there is always room for improvement.

  8. Yay! I get alot of praise from the manageing partner now that I have BECOME a rain maker! He also give’s me a clotheing allowance, and free shoes!

  9. Praise is great, Yet I feel poitive renforcement and asking for their feedback is just as important. Giving them a chance to have ownership, even if it’s just in the way they express their views on how things are going makes them part of the solution.

  10. This reminder to supervisors and leaders is outstanding and so true. A simple word of agreement about an idea or thought, a note of thanks for work done or an explanation of how to improve on work goes much farther than continual criticism.

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