Catch them In the Act of Doing Something Right


What is it that makes us focus more sharply on what’s wrong, than what’s right with something  . . . an idea, a business plan, an employee’s suggestion or behavior?    There is something, I think, about how we condition MBA’s to think critically about situations which is at the heart of the case study method.  You see a situation – normally one where storm clouds are brewing.   Don’t we love to analyze what they did wrong?

I think if we are not careful, this mentality carries over into our way of seeing the world (glass half empty) and can impact how we manage people, interact with our spouse, and even raise our kids.

At work, most of us feel pressure to reduce risk as we race in pursuit of the various performance metrics that were created for us and our teams.   As such, we have a bias for PREVENTING mistakes, especially when we feel there is a lot at stake.   This orientation makes it natural for us to find fault with any idea before us – looking for ways to prevent all the possible failure modes.

How sad that we must lead with such negative energy.

There is a story I recall dating back to 1999, when the US women’s soccer team won their first World Cup.  The match was as exciting as you could ever want.    On July 10, 1999, over 90,000 people (the largest ever for a women’s sporting event) filled the Rose Bowl to watch the United States play China in the Final. At the end of play the score remained tied, and it all came down to a nail-biting penalty shootout.   American goal tender Briana Scurry deflected China’s third kick, the score remained tied at 4–4 with only Brandi Chastain left to shoot.  She scored and won the game for the United States. Chastain famously dropped to her knees and whipped off her shirt, celebrating in her sports bra, which later made the cover of Sports Illustrated (see photo at left) and the front pages of newspapers around the country and world.   With this win they emerged onto the world stage and brought significant media attention to women’s soccer and athletics.

Well, the media frenzy was something.   But after the reporters got tired of interviewing the stars like Brandi and Mia Hamm, they finally got around to interrogating their coach, a guy named Tony DiCicco, a soccer star and coach in his own right.  He started with US Women’s soccer team as goaltending coach in 1991, and took over as head coach of the women’s team in 1994.

Anyway, I remember reading one interview with DiCicco where he was asked what it was like coaching women as opposed to men (a relatively new experience for him).  His response stuck with me.

In the beginning, he said, it was the same.  We all know that model either from our own youthful experiences or from countless sports movies.   Sports training was more like Marine boot camp.  When you mess up, the determined coaches yelled or made you run laps in the hope of propelling you to try harder and become better.    But, says DiCicco, it wasn’t working. He said, “The players hated me, weren’t performing up to their potential, and most importantly, we weren’t winning.   After one humiliating loss, I was sitting in a bar (thinking I was going to be fired), knowing I had to do something different.  But what? So I decided in practice next week to back off some, and it seemed to help.   Gradually, I came to see my role as catching them in the act of doing something right . . . and them making a big deal out of it!”

It seemed to help.   Once they started to win, he and the team compiled a record of 103–8–8 (while I’m not expert, that sounds pretty good).

So how about that for management advice?  Use POSITIVE reinforcement instead of constructive criticism.  The whole notion of how many of us approach performance appraisal is based on the latter.   We are trained to point out strengths AND weaknesses (sometimes called areas for improvement).    Every time we sit down for a review, we almost blow by the complements from our boss, waiting for the BUT.

Why not eliminate the weaknesses part altogether (unless your intent is to build a case for termination)?

Leading from positive energy can be a powerful force in your organization.   Check out this clip featuring Nikesh Arora, Google’s President of Global Sales Operations and Business Development as he chats with Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland about creating a positive leadership culture.

Other References

Rewarding Careers Applying Positive Psychological Science to Improve Quality of Work Life, by Steward I. Donaldson, and Michelle C. Bligh

Positive Psychological Capital: Measurement and Relationship with Performance and Satisfaction, by Fred Luthans and Bruce J. Avolio

Accentuate the Positive: Strengths-Based Approach to Performance Reviews, from HCareers

Thoughts on Performance Reviews and Positive Psychology, By Doug Turner

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