Focus On The Good; Not The Bad

It may have started at home as a child:

“You brushed your hair nicely and I’m glad you brushed your teeth, but your room is a mess.”

Then in school it was:

“Gets along with others, does excellent in Math but could be better in History.”

As a teenager dating:

“You’re kind and thoughtful, but I wish you were taller.”

Finally as an adult the boss says:

“You’re hitting your targets and I’m pleased with your energy, but you could participate more in team meetings.”

Many people will identify with having heard comments such as the above. When you look back at each of them, there’s two positives and one to work on; two good and one bad, two strengths and a weakness. Depends how you hear it, interpret it and understand it.

These comments and their impact divides people into two groups: those that heard the positives and are uplifted and feel good about themselves, and those who zeroed in on the one thing that they aren’t doing well and need to improve upon. Which type are you generally?

For the last two weeks, I’ve been instructing a class of a dozen people who are just learning to use the computer. It’s computer basics, starting pretty much with how to turn it on. We’ve covered terminology, creating and using email, crafting a resume using MS Word, exploring the internet, using job search skills, working with a USB Flashstick, navigating employment websites, and applied for jobs. For absolute beginners, we’ve accomplished a great deal.

Yesterday I gave each person a 13 step assignment which would give them a chance to independently use their skills. Everyone found they could do more than half of the assignment entirely unaided. I’d guess it was around step 8 or 9 where the majority had to pause and ask for help from someone. No shame in that by the way; asking for help with the computer is something I see all the time in workplaces. Eventually the whole class did complete the assigned work, and I made sure to remind them to focus not on what they failed to remember and needed help with, but focus rather on all the things they did correctly and did remember on their own. What each accomplished far outweighed where they struggled.

You see, I believe that people don’t hear the good in themselves as much as they need to. Some in fact, have gone long stretches of time without hearing much at all from anyone when it comes to positive feedback. I think successful people hear and internalize the good when they get mixed feedback, whereas those who tend to only hear the suggestions for improvement tend to have a lower self-image of themselves. Sure we can all improve, but my goodness, there’s so much I see to praise in people.

But surely some of you are thinking, we can’t go around telling people how awesome they are and how great they are doing when in fact they aren’t! If we don’t point out their shortcomings and their faults how are they to improve? I had a boss like that once. He told me it was his job to point out all the little things I was doing wrong when doing one of my yearly performance appraisals. Yet on a daily basis he was happy with my performance. That comment he made during a 3 hour (yep, he thought a 3 hour appraisal was how best to motivate people) meeting where he did nothing but point out little things I could do better resonated with me then and still does 25 years later. His words were, “It’s not my job to point out what you’re doing right, but to point out all the things you’re doing wrong so you can improve.” I started job searching the next day and soon got a better job, more income, and worked at a higher level in the new organization. Oh he motivated me alright.

Perhaps it is the consistent memory of that bad experience that has given me great empathy for people I lead, partner with and instruct. If like me, you are in a position of some authority or influence in your job, it is a responsibility of ours to build up rather than beat down. It’s far too easy to point out what others are doing wrong, where they can improve, how to be better. It’s just as easy to point out successes, achievements, label and reinforce accomplishments. Why not choose to emphasize the good?

The thing is, you and I; we really don’t intimately know the past of many people we interact with daily. We can read notes in a file, but the person is so much more rich and layered than some file. We don’t know how many times they’ve had people they trusted and respected tell them they could do better, BE better. Could be they honestly feel they’ll never measure up; they’ll never be good enough.

Imagine then – and it’s not too hard really – how impactful you and I might be if we built people up with genuine positives. Genuine of course, not invented, but positive comments and praise. Then imagine if that same person heard some good from someone else, then a third person. Why we might actually see people believe more in themselves, like themselves better and build successfully on their successes.

And that my reader, is pretty cool.


In your organization, in your workplace, you’ve undoubtedly got people in positions of authority; charged with supervising others. Are they putting in the effort to lead, inspire, motivate and mentor or are they putting in time?

I suppose if you’re fortunate, you’ve got a Manager whose style and substance is a good match for what fits with your own expectations. So if you thrive on a hands-off environment and you’ve got a person in the management role who largely leaves you alone to carry out your work, you both win. On the other hand, if that’s your preferred working style and you end up with an immediate Supervisor who micro-manages, the fit won’t work for either of you, and something has to give. Recognize that neither is implicitly wrong, but the two contrasting styles don’t compliment each other and there will be problems.

So unless you’re working as an entrepreneur and running your own business with no other employees, this issue of leadership is vitally important to all who work in organizations. There’s two sides to this equation, the needs of the employees and the need of the Manager. Not only do both have needs but both have responsibilities. While it’s easier to see the Manager pointing out the responsibilities of the employees they supervise, it’s not so easy to see the employees getting together to point out the responsibilities of the Manager to lead them.

Nonetheless, Managers, when acting as a collective Management team, have a critically vital role in organizations; setting the tone and atmosphere in which employees work, leading by example and ensuring that the activities of their staff and how they go about those activities works towards common organizational goals.

It’s interesting though isn’t it; this distinction of the two roles. I mean while they are both people, the one has the right to walk in unannounced and say, “So how’s it going? What are you working on? Let me see how you go about your day.” I rather doubt most employees would experience a comfort level in doing any of the three with their own Supervisor.

The best kind of Supervisor perhaps is the person who aspires to inspire; the one who said at some point, “I want to be the kind of Supervisor who works to bring out the individual talents of those on my team.” Of course, it largely depends on the organization you work with, the structure that exists, the ideal atmosphere and the directives the Supervisors themselves get from their own leaders. Could be the best kind of Supervisor in some environments are those who crack the whip, who accept nothing less than superior performance, who watch performance and push for better results and more profitability.

Now if you’re in Management you might feel you finally have the authority and power to bring about the chemistry and ideals you place in high regard. However, just as you feel you’re in a place to make changes, you find yourself inundated with reports, projects and meetings you didn’t expect. Your time is now consumed with new responsibilities and the people you supervise are suddenly working independent of your leadership it seems except for those scheduled team meetings. This isn’t how you pictured things.

As an employee, you have to decide what you need in a supervisor too. Are you new and need the guidance and tutelage of a hands-on Boss who can correct, praise, instruct and approve? Are you looking for a leader who will recognize your lengthy years of service and your strong performance and give you the latitude to do your thing and check with you from time to time? Or have you plateaued, there’s little that you do voluntarily anymore, and you’d love to hide right out in the open and the kind of Boss who would let these things go unnoticed would be ideal?

Different people both want and need different kinds of leaders. Sometimes what they need isn’t what they want and conversely what they want isn’t what they need. How many times though does a Supervisor sit down with their team and say, “Okay, let’s talk about what you each need and what you all need collectively as a team?” Assuming this did happen, how honest would you be, how well would you know your own needs if asked, and how likely would your current Supervisor be to receive all that feedback and then, most importantly, do something positive with the information received?

There’s a vulnerability in this process of asking for that kind of response. There’s little value in seeking honest comments if people are closed to change and adaptation. What you might need or ask for may not be possible to give too, and it could be that what you ask for might indeed be available in another person but not the one charged with you on their team. So is it time for change – not with them, but rather you?

Managers manage people, and an office and name plate don’t guarantee that they’ll be good Managers. Some are only concerned with the title, the income, the prestige, the authority or power. Some are reclusive, some like the closed-door, the, ‘knock and wait until you have permission to enter’ philosophy. Others mentor, critique privately and praise publicly.

What do you need? What will you contribute? What will inspire your best?