Focus on what’s right, not what’s wrong
Winslow Wong 

SOME people manage by exception: they spot a wrong action, behaviour or outcome, point it out and get it fixed. They feel this is an efficient way to manage, and they may be right in certain situations. However, excessive focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right generally doesn’t serve us well.

Some years ago, I was extremely frustrated with myself, feeling terrible that my energy was like a hamster in a wheel. I had made significant progress on several key projects but was frustrated because, as often happens, taking new steps forward had brought me up against a new set of obstacles. I focused on everything I hadn’t accomplished, instead of what I had, and on everything that was blocking me rather than the many things that were going my way. It took me a while to overcome that negativity bias.

When you make it your top priority – sometimes to the extent of being obsessed with it – to highlight only your employees’ mistakes, you need to pause and ask whether they’re learning anything worthwhile. My experience and observations tell me that people who work for such managers often pick up many behaviours that aren’t productive like only showcasing the things they do well, hiding mistakes or not bothering to check their work knowing that someone else is going to pick out their errors anyway!

Rightly or wrongly, people tend to look up to their leaders for guidance, taking cues from leadership behaviours to take shape on their own. So when leaders focus only on the negatives all the time, they send the wrong message to their subordinates: “You’ll get my attention if you make mistakes.” What we look for is what we perpetuate! It’s no wonder then that those who manage by exception often complain their team members either cannot do things without them or make loads of mistakes. Those who did well will feel unappreciated and tend to leave after some time as their work is not valued.

By focusing on what’s not working, you miss out the opportunity of spotting things that are working. Experience tells us that there’re usually a hundred things that work for every one or two that don’t. While it’s important to learn what not to do, there’s more value in learning what to do and how to do it. Managers must highlight and create opportunities to discuss great work done by their team members. By highlighting them, you mark out what’s important to encourage those performing the work to do more and better.

Overpowering the negativity bias is one thing, but how do you motivate your team members to do more of the right things? This is where positive reinforcement plays a key role. It is the process of recognising and rewarding a desired behaviour to encourage its continuance. It consists of praise, offering incentives to continue the behaviour or showing appreciation for the effort.

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool. We encourage our children and praise them for doing what’s right. It builds their self-esteem and helps them see their personal strengths. If children are constantly told they’re doing things wrong, they may start believing it and, over time, they may prove you right!

Adults also need a generous dose of positive reinforcement occasionally. When people receive recognition and praise for great work, they tend to stay actively engaged. Providing positive reinforcement gives employees a sense of self-worth by making them feel good. It lets them know they’re making progress and that management is recognising their efforts.

Positive reinforcement can also increase the chances of a desired behaviour reoccurring in future. If workers receive repeated praise or encouragement for good performance, they’re more likely to continue it. If someone has done something well – even if it’s a small task – congratulate him and ask “How did you do that?” By asking how he did it, you’re reinforcing that behaviour. Don’t be too ambitious, but set mini goals and look out for small improvements. Celebrate small successes to help your workers, particularly new ones, shape their performance in the direction you want.

When used appropriately and consistently, positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool in employee motivation. Start by defining what constitutes desirable behaviour. Set specific, measurable work goals with your team, individually and collectively, and then decide together the most important behaviours to achieve the results.

Give employees concrete, specific information about what they’ve done right. For example, instead of simply saying “John, you did the right thing yesterday,” it’s more effective to say “John, I appreciate you for volunteering to stay back to finish the project yesterday. Keep it up!”

Another good practice is to reinforce immediately, by rewarding employees as soon as possible after any good performance. I learned this powerful strategy when I was training to be a primary school teacher many years ago.

For example, a student is rewarded with a sticker immediately for completing his homework on time. Because the response is immediate, he’s more likely to repeat the behaviour. If it isn’t reinforced immediately, many things can happen between the time a child responds correctly and the delivery of reinforcement. The longer you take to deliver reinforcement, the greater the chance an unintended behaviour will occur and this end up being the one reinforced. The same applies to adults as well, so don’t wait till the end of the year to reward!

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 260.