As leaders, it’s our job to troubleshoot and solve problems. But sometimes this highly developed sense of error detection can go off the deep end.
I think it happens to all of us and I can share an example. One weekend afternoon, back when our kids were young, my husband and I took them swimming at the local pool.
We walked past overflowing trash bins at the entry gate, and the attendants didn’t bother to sign us in, despite the policy. I walked into the changing area and the trash bins were overflowing there too, and the toilets…well, they needed attention. A few of the lifeguards were at their assigned posts, but others were jamming to music, engaged in their own conversation. It was the “jammers’” jobs to keep the restrooms clean, the trash emptied, and to welcome and sign in the members. Arghh!
After our kids jumped in, I turned to my husband Bill and regaled him with a laundry list of all the things that could have been done better. He let me finish and then looked at me calmly and said, “You know, Sweetie, it’s a beautiful day. Our kids are happy. Look at those butterflies. How about if you just focus on the things that are going right, instead of the things that need to be fixed?”
I paused for a moment. I’ve always prided myself on being appreciative, but my “fix-it alert” had definitely been triggered. All I was seeing were the things that needed attention. I decided to take Bill’s advice, turn off my criticism radar, and take in the positive things that were happening around me. I took a long slurp of the iced tea I brought and savored the lemon and the mint on my tongue. Twenty or so years later, that day with my family remains a cherished memory, even though I didn’t “fix” anything.
One of the most powerful things that we can do as leaders is to notice what is going right — and to reward and appreciate the people responsible for those successes. That doesn’t mean ignoring areas that need to be improved, but it does mean focusing more of our time and energy on our high performers, on the products that are selling, and on all that is working. Usually the greatest opportunities are realized by focusing on what is right and by supporting and enhancing it. All employees, colleagues, and family members flourish when we notice and reward all they are doing that is right.
Tell me your swimming pool story. I know we all have one.
When my son was in the second grade, I volunteered in his class. It was a classroom with eight very gifted, yet very challenging, young boys. One particular afternoon, one of the little boys in the class was particularly cranky and angry. I asked the teacher, “How do you reach him?” And she said, “It’s easy. I just give him a genuine compliment.” I replied, “How do you do that on a day like today? He hasn’t done anything to compliment.” And she said, “I come up with something, even if it’s just, ‘I like your t-shirt,’ or ‘I like the way you part your hair.'” Incredulous, I repeated that to her, “I like the way you part your hair?!” “Yes, on the days he’s so upset, so angry, so downtrodden, on those days he’ll accept any compliment. He’s so hungry for someone to notice something positive about him, to throw him a bone, even saying, ‘I like the way you part your hair’ is helpful to him.”
Wow. I found this amazing, and I gave it a try. I looked for big, important things that he and the other students were doing, but when I couldn’t find any, I would say something simple like, “I’m glad you’re thinking about the assignment. I can see the wheels are turning in your head.” Or, “You have your paper out. That’s the first step.”
I find this strategy to be true in my work life as well. Sometimes it’s really difficult for me to find something positive to say to some of the people I have been hired to coach. They don’t want to be there. They don’t want coaching. They never signed up for it. They’re not really motivated by the possibility of growth. In these moments, I say the simplest things, the most obvious things. “Thank you for showing up. Thank you for giving it a try. Thank you for considering what I’m saying.”
Unfortunately, the negative stuff takes up more of our time and our energy. But when we focus on the positive, the positives grow. Here are some things for you to notice:
I like that you followed up.
I like that you started the conversation.
Thank you for drawing it to my attention.
Thank you for doing the research that you’ve done.
Thank you for telling me that you’re going to need some help.
Thank you for letting me know you need more time.
And if all else fails you can always resort to, “I like the way you part your hair.” It will work for all but the bald ones.