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Positive Reinforcement – Focus Praise on Behaviors

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Mon, Jul 7, 2014

On my laptop that I frequently take to client meetings is a picture of my family including my wife, Michelle.  Perdido Key, FL 118 resized 600Occasionally I get compliments on how attractive she and my family is.  I often relay this to her and I frequently tell her how attractive she is.

She doesn’t like it much.  


Read the article Everything You Need to Know about Giving Negative Feedback by Sarah Green from HBR.  At the end of the article is a clue as to why my spouse doesn’t particularly care for my frequent comments about her attractiveness.  You’d think I would have gotten this a long time ago, but I guess I’m a slow learner. 

Have you ever heard that you treat the people you work with better than your family?  I hope not, but in many cases we do.  We frequently apply ourselves to our work, learn how to approach people and give criticism and self-development help and yet fail to apply these same principles at home.   It’s been said familiarity breeds contempt.  Where is their more familiarity at work or at home?  

Back to the article and particularly the last paragraph which states:  “And when you do offer plaudits, praise effort — not ability. Carol Dweck’s well-known research has shown that’s the best way to keep people motivated and it makes criticism feel less threatening and personal. After all, if you’ve been told your whole life, “You’re so smart!” a rebuke might make you wonder, Am I dumb now? Focusing your praise on behaviors — “You guys really put a lot of attention to detail into this” or “I’m so impressed with how hard you worked to get this done on time and under budget” — means that when you have to deliver some corrective feedback, people are more likely to take it in the same vein rather than as a personal attack.”

In my wife’s case she’s been told by me and others that she’s attractive for some time, however attractiveness is fleeting.  Why am I not praising her more for what she does for me and my family?  We had a lot of rain in Cedar Rapids recently, and one of our friends that used to be our neighbors and who Michelle walks with every week had their basement flooded.  This morning when she got up, she took a fan over to them to help dry their floor that had flooded.  She had asked them how she could help. 

I could have easily complimented her this morning on how quick she was to respond and help our friends out.  Did I?  Did I even recognize that opportunity at the time?

An article like Everything You Need to Know about Giving Negative Feedback, Reinforcement Multiplies Through Your Organization or any of the 31 blogs I’ve written that contain the key word positive reinforcement help reminds us that if we’re not giving positive feedback in the ratio of 5 to 1 we’re failing to provide the proper environment for those around us to prosper and contribute to our company and yes our family to grow and reach their potential.

Worse yet we may believe we are giving them positive reinforcement like I’ve been doing with my wife when I tell her hair looks great today.  But is it really giving them the boost and effect of positive reinforcement that’s intended to be the result? 

Focus your praise on behavior.  “Michelle you’re going out of your way to find out how you could help the Newhouse’s and then driving to their house to get them the fan right away this morning shows what a real friend and someone who cares would do.”

Praise effort, not ability.   How many of us know people with great talent yet fail to activate it.  How many of us know people who have marginal talent yet succeed far beyond their talents and overcome great odds to achieve success?  Praising effort contributes to motivating and rewarding the energy it requires to take action.  Mark Twain noted, “Unused talents gives you no advantage over someone who has no talent at all.”  Let’s make an effort to recognize those who are willing, courageous and persistent enough to endeavor to achieve.  In doing so don’t we encourage them to achieve more?   

The learning we achieve at work can and should be applied to those closest to us.  I’m guilty of too often not following what I preach when it acmes to my family and friends. 

I’m going to work on that.  I’m going to work on praising the behavior of Michelle, Joshua, Noah, Dan and everyone I come in contact with each day. 

What can you work on to improve the way you interact with your team and your family?

Driving back from several client meetings on Thursday I listened to Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio speak about how a system is fundamentally better than talent.  He specifically addressed America’s Soccer team and the promise it has.  What’s more important, the system or talent? Does choosing the system fly in the face of Jim Collins, “First Who than What” principle from Good To Great?  That’s next blog. 

Topics: Employee Feedback, Employee Recognition, employee performance, People, positive reinforcement, best practices of growth companies, human behavior, How to Motivate Employees, human behavior performance

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