Posted by: wendywerner | December 4, 2009

Accentuate the Positive

I have more and more come to believe that work performance is enhanced by positive feedback, rather than corrective or negative feedback.  This morning I heard that perspective reinforced on NPR by the TCU football coach.  While I would hardly call myself a sports fan, the team (the Horned Frogs and I’m not kidding)  has had an undefeated season and some impressive wins over much larger schools including a big win over Utah. They are ranked #4 in the country.  Gary Patterson, the coach, indicated that it was his change in attitude – toward the positive – that has made the difference.   Watchers believe that Patterson has a knack for spotting talent overlooked by bigger schools and turns them into great players.  He says he came to understand that his negativity was about him, not the players.  He believes that his change in attitude – toward what they have to do rather than their possible downfalls has turned them from also rans into a successful team.

I think this is a story that can translate effectively to all other kinds of work.  Despite the many books written about spotting good performance and rewarding it (remember The One Minute Manager?) I think we still spend too much time in the workplace trying to catch people making mistakes and correcting them.   When you think about your interactions with your supervisor (or your subordinates) how much time do you or they spend trying to reinforce strengths as opposed to correcting weaknesses? 

It might be an interesting experiment to put yourself on a critique diet for a week.  When you are tempted to ask an employee to do something differently, or critique their performance – don’t.  Instead spend as much energy as you can for that week on finding things that your employee/s do well.   Then observe the impact on employee morale and performance at the end of the week.

This kind of behavior can be even a greater challenge for lawyers. Many have told me, “My people know they’re doing well if I’m not yelling at them.”  Imagine their surprise if you walked into an office and reinforced something that they had done well during the week – no matter how small. 

Another lesson of the coach story was about spotting talent.  It is a difficult skill to cultivate but I think it can be done.  The problem is often that people don’t really know what they are looking for in an employee, and lots of people end up chasing the same few potential employees.  Despite concrete evidence to the contrary, lots of Fortune 500 companies are often chasing the same CEO candidates.  The Jim Collins book, “Good to Great” studied the performance of a group of stellar companies.  None of them had well-known, publicity oriented CEO’s.  Yet we still operate in the cult of the Jack Welch executive.  So when you go out looking for employees, what is your gift for finding overlooked talent that can help your organization rise to the top?  It’s an interesting question.



  1. You have hit the nail right on the head. Being a TCU graduate, I especially liked the Gary Patterson reference.

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