I recently attended a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox. During batting practice, a young man in his wheelchair was placed near the entrance to the Boston players dugout and clubhouse. What then unfolded was a valuable leadership lesson for us all.
Players left the field in waves and sadly most walked by seemingly blind to the individual placed upon their path, the young man’s disappointment was obvious. But eventually some players did notice, stop and speak with the fan. He was delighted.
A few dropped to one knee to have a chat, others crouched shoulder to shoulder with him pointing to and talking about the action still on the field. From my vantage point the young man’s verbal skills seemed limited. One player, Hanley Ramirez, put the lad in a playful headlock and gave him a noogie. (ok I’m thinking that’s the first and last use of the word noogie in my blogs). He nearly exploded with joy having been given a soft noggin knuckle rub by one of his heroes and one of baseball’s biggest stars. Ramirez grabbed a chair nearby and they then had a long conversation.
As a close observer of the team I was not surprised by which players noticed, stopped and said something: the 7 were the formal (captains) and informal leaders on the club comprised of both young unknowns and seasoned veterans. All leaders in their own right.
I don’t usually talk sports in this forum because of the disconnect with the everyday workplace but I couldn’t help thinking of how that related to what leaders do and don’t do in everyday workplaces.
Many managers are more likely to speak up when something is wrong or not up to standard. Rightly so. But not so much when it comes to affirming comments that recognize standards being met or exceeded, for teaching purposes or simply to have the person feel valued and appreciated. Why is this seemingly so hard for so many?
Constructive criticism, the “bad news feedback”, is more likely to be accepted and acted upon when it’s accompanied in the recent past by acknowledgement and positive feedback. In their excellent Harvard Business Review article “Praise to Criticism Ratio” John Zenger and Joseph Folkman’s research states the ratio is 5 to 1 (actually its 5.6:1 but let’s not quibble) in the days and weeks leading up to delivering bad news feedback.
Here are three tips to strengthen your delivery (ok, technically a baseball pitching term but it still works).
1. Noticing good behaviour or performance. If you’re shopping for a new car you notice virtually every car on the road. Leaders often tell me when they begin focusing and looking for opportunities to provide positive feedback, they are in abundance.
2. Stopping. A leader in a professional services firm recently told me she notices great effort, thoughtful work and meaningful results every day but blames her busy schedule on why she doesn’t stop and say something in a timely fashion. Those who are looking for excuses will find them. “I don’t want to interrupt”, “I don’t want to spoil people with positive reinforcement” (this one makes me laugh and is impossible when the feedback is sincere and true) or “It’s not my place” to commend subordinates, colleagues or their bosses (this one makes me ill). If stopping immediately and saying something is not appropriate, do it soon, feedback has a short shelf life.
3. Saying something. I totally get that finding the words can be challenging. And simply saying “good job” doesn’t quite cut it, is not specific enough, and people need to hear exactly what they did well in order to repeat it. When I recently asked one accomplished manager for his formula he simply said he comments on what sees and it usually begins with “I couldn’t help but noticing that…” He went on to say that it usually ends with a “keep it up, you are making a difference” and the other person smiling from ear to ear. You don’t have to be perfect at it, just intentional and genuine.
Zenger and Folkman’s 5.6:1 ratio is a clear signal leaders must be providing a steady stream of genuine, honest feedback both good news and constructive criticism. And remember it needn’t be a home run (that’s a really good thing) or a costly error for you to notice, stop and say something.