Accentuate the Positive: Help Your People Do Even Better

Most supervisors don’t actually spend the majority of their time developing their people. Instead, they’re often stuck in meetings — which are sometimes about their people — or handling paperwork, computer problems, or whatever other administrative headaches ostensibly affect their people and their people’s work.

When supervisors do spend time with their team, it’s more often with problem employees rather than successful ones — in the same way that customer service people spend most of their time with problem customers rather than the ones who are satisfied.

This is a normal paradigm for human behavior. Whether “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” or we don’t think it’s useful to fix something “if it ain’t broke,” we’re most inclined to focus on the weak link or the problematic situation.

Invest in the Upside

We’re so used to identifying people’s imperfections that we put too much time into trying to fix them rather than making the most of what they’ve got. We waste so much energy trying to get back to normal! Normal is pretty much a fiction — and it’s too vague a concept to be useful in looking for qualities that could be good, valuable, effective, or even great in a team member. Erasing a negative is not as fruitful as enhancing someone’s strengths or creating a new positive experience for them.

Of course we have to take care of even the most annoying customers — unless we decide they’re damaging to the business — and the same is true for lackluster or underachieving employees. Still, it would be great if we could find ways to invest in the upside instead of pouring effort and money down the rat hole of low payoff.

So what’s a better way to help a less-than-perfect employee’s progress? Quit picking on things! I’m a big picker myself, so I know how tempting it is to find what’s wrong rather than what’s going well enough. It’s easy, and it’s often quite satisfying, to identify what’s not good and make normative statements about what could be better. But the mere identification of problems won’t necessarily improve anything for the better — and beyond that, it’s quite amazing how much actually doesn’t need to be perfect.

Optimal Doesn’t Have to Mean Perfect

I’m not suggesting that you should forget the undesirable details of an employee’s performance, or pretend that the optimal doesn’t exist. Many niceties really are necessary and make a difference in work quality and public perception. But if you have a rep who’s kind and helpful, consistently balances the needs of the customers and the business, is supportive of her colleagues, and appears to be genuinely cheerful most days, please resist the urge to correct her just because she says “umm” too much or “okay” after every customer response.

Instead of demoralizing her with picky criticism, let her happiness spread to her teammates. Let her sense of caring bring customers back. Both employees and customers respond better to encouragement than they do to criticism of what they didn’t do or should have done. So accentuate the positive: Find and praise the thing that’s heading in the right direction.

There will always be aspects of performance that would benefit from correction — and you certainly have to address them. But if all you do is focus on the negative, then employees will either shrink and disengage or rebel and incite more trouble. In either case, they won’t get to do or be at their best, and you’ll only intensify the power of the problem.

Remember, too, that there’s extra value to be gained by strengthening strengths and giving people the coaching and development that will help them get to the top of their game. Just think what could be possible if skills were X percent stronger and performance was X percent higher. Sometimes capturing the upside provides enough extra revenue or positive halo to counteract a heap of weakness.

Most working adults can only change so much. Organizations accomplish more when they encourage those changes to be about enhancing strengths, instead of reducing weaknesses.

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