In many working environments, people usually focus on fixing problems. This makes sense because continuous improvement allows organizations to survive and thrive. However, a focus on things that could be improved usually comes down to a focus on failures and mistakes, and this mindset can have some serious side effects. Being a perfectionist, I have sometimes been guilty of this myself. I have “raised the bar” for me and for others until the bar was so high that Godzilla could do a limbo dance underneath it while carrying a space shuttle.
However, I noticed a strange thing when I urged people to stop screwing up. I found this didn’t motivate them at all! I realized getting better isn’t just about reducing what goes wrong (making mistakes). It’s also about increasing what goes right (using good practices). And every now and then, people need a reminder that they’re doing just fine.
It’s no wonder the culture in many organizations feels negative when the focus of discussions is mainly on mistakes and problems. Workers feel they are held accountable for not being perfect. Instead of having a constructive view of improvement, people end up with a defensive frame of mind. They avoid taking responsibility, and, for every perceived problem they point at others who must have caused it. Because people’s minds are focused on self-defense instead of improvement, things will not get any better and the organization will just make more mistakes.
I believe we should emphasize the good practices over the mistakes because you get more of what you focus on. [Alberg, “How to Celebrate Success throughout Your Projects”; Eckel, “You Get What You Measure”] If you focus on mistakes, people will make more mistakes. If you focus on good practices, people will invent more good practices.
Am I allowed to offer people some criticism?
Yes, you are! Constructive criticism can be quite useful, though research has shown that negative feedback is more effective for experts than for novices. [Grant Halvorson, “Sometimes Negative Feedback Is Best”] It’s OK to let novices know when they made a mistake, but their performance will increase much faster when you focus on their good behaviors. It appears that experts will usually have more appreciation for knowing where they went wrong, but they welcome a pat on the back every now and then as well.
By emphasizing good practices, and even ritualizing them, you also make it possible to free up people’s mental power so they have more time for the more complex and uncertain aspects of their work. For example, quality checklists often have beneficial effects for creative networkers, not only because they help to keep the quality of products and services high, but also because they enable workers to think of more interesting problems to solve and experiments to run. [Gawande, Checklist Manifesto]
It seems evident to me that we should emphasize the good behaviors, not the bad ones. We should celebrate good practices, not punish mistakes.
Jurgen Appelo is Europe’s most popular leadership author, listed on Inc.com’s Top 50 Management Experts and 100 Great Leadership Speakers. His latest book Management 3.0 #Workout, full of concrete games, tools, and practices, is available as a FREE pdf, and in paperback, Kindle and ePub versions. Get your copy here: https://www.management30.com/workout
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Alberg, Amy. “How to Celebrate Success Throughout Your Projects” <https://bit.ly/I94FWZ> Making Things Happen, 21 May 2008. Web.
Eckel, Bruce. “You Get What You Measure” <https://bit.ly/pc0CwQ> Reinventing Business, 2 August 2011. Web.
Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. Print.
Grant Halvorson, Heidi. “Sometimes Negative Feedback Is Best” <https://bit.ly/WBZ8kf> HBR, 28 January 2013. Web.