Positive Feedback Nets Positive Results (and the converse is also true…)

“When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be. ” (Thomas S. Monson)

Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; attrib: Donna CameronCarol’s comment about last week’s “Kindness in the Workplace” post got me to thinking.  She noted her experience that treating people with kindness and encouragement brings out their best work.  The carrot, she said, is far more effective than the stick.

That recalled my first real job after college.  It was my first “9-to-5” office job and it was for a textbook publisher—a small publishing division incongruously owned by a huge publically-traded corporation that had a global presence in technology and defense.  The president of our little division was a bully.  He motivated—if that’s what you call it—by fear and intimidation.  That was about the time that a variety of books on winning through intimidation, looking out for number one, screw the other guy, and nice guys finish last were gaining in popularity.  I’m pretty sure he stayed up nights underlining these texts and planning how he was going to terrorize the editorial and sales teams working under him.

My immediate boss trembled at the mere mention of his name, and a call from the “home office”—3000 miles away—always triggered panic.  The twice-yearly meetings that brought together staff from all the division’s offices were an opportunity for him to browbeat his employees one-on-one or in small groups.  He would berate, belittle, and threaten employees in front of their peers.  After a national sales meeting, there was always a spate of resignations—mine was one of those finally.  And yet he wondered why the company had high turnover.

I worked with some really good people at that company, and I was sorry to be leaving them when I resigned.  But I wasn’t sorry to leave the company, its chief executive, or the pervasive culture of fear and intimidation.

I don’t regret the three years I worked there.  I learned a great deal, met a lot of tremendous people, and developed some professional confidence.  I also had an opportunity at a very early age to make some decisions about what I would and would not tolerate in my professional life.  I vowed to myself that I would not work for another bully, and that I would not be a part of a culture that didn’t value its employees or that relied on threats and intimidation rather than encouragement and support.  I don’t think I articulated it at the time, but from that day forward, I sought kind employers and managers, and when it was my turn to step into the employer/manager role, I sought to be kind and encouraging.  I don’t think I always succeeded, but it was my intent.

Last week, I mentioned Lance Secretan’s books on leadership as being ones that addressed leading with kindness and compassion.  D. Michael Abrashoff—a former Naval commander—has written a couple of great books that also approach leadership from a positive and compassionate perspective.  In It’s Your Ship, he describes how he took over command of the USS Benfold—positioned dead last in naval rankings—and, in partnership with its crew, quickly turned it around to be deemed “the best damn ship in the Navy.”  It’s an inspiring story, and a great lesson in leadership.

One of Commander Abrashoff’s guiding principles was to empower and support his people.  He said, “I prefer to build myself up by strengthening others and helping them feel good about their jobs and themselves. When that happens, their work improves, and my own morale leaps.”

He further noted of his shipmates and crew, “The more I thanked them for hard work, the harder they worked.  The payoff in morale was palpable.  I’m absolutely convinced that positive, personal reinforcement is the essence of effective leadership.”

His next book bore the great title, Get Your Ship Together, and it was a collection of case studies of successful businesses—ones that achieved their success through various means of positive personal reinforcement..

In neither book does Abrashoff diminish the need for criticism or discipline, but shows how it can be applied firmly, fairly, and with compassion—and to great result.

We All Need Feedback

Feedback isn’t always going to be positive—we’d never learn or improve if it was.  But any manager or leader who thinks a steady stream of negative feedback will motivate employees and make them eager to improve is woefully misguided.  Professor Kim Cameron (no relation, but coincidentally, I do have a sister named Kim Cameron) of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan asserts that both positive and negative feedback are essential, but that effective motivation requires a ratio skewed heavily to the positive.  He reports that high-performance teams demonstrate a positive statement ratio of 5.6-to-1 vs. low performance teams which exhibit a positive to negative ratio of 0.36 to 1.

Expanding Dr. Cameron’s research beyond just the business world, what if we apply his findings and ratio to family settings, and friends, and our day-to-day interactions with all our planet-mates?  What would happen if each of us committed to a personal goal of making six positive comments for every one negative remark.  That would make for either a very positive world … or a very quiet one.  Either way, it’s an improvement.

“Invent your world. Surround yourself with people, color, sounds, and work that nourish you.” – Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (Sark)

2 thoughts on “Positive Feedback Nets Positive Results (and the converse is also true…)

  1. Donna, at my college reunion we spoke fondly of our drawing teacher. She would set us to do detailed pen-and-ink drawings that took weeks, and offered plenty of opportunity to go wrong! Invariably when it was time to review, she would come over, look intently at the student’s work, and say, “Oh My God, this is SO BEAUTIFUL! [pause] Just keep working.” Her students produced some remarkable drawings under this feedback regimen.


    • Ann, I’ll bet we all have a few teachers like that whom we remember for their encouragement and positive feedback…and whom we loved for those reasons. For me, it was Mr. Allen, 6th grade. He encouraged my writing and I will always remember him for that encouragement. Thanks for your comment and for giving me another opportunity to think of and thank Mr. Allen. Do you still draw?


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