Chet Elton on “The Power of Positivity

EltonHere’s a brief article by Chet Elton for LinkedIn Pulse. To check out others, please click here.

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When Sean Covey was playing quarterback at BYU, his father Stephen R. Covey rushed back from a work assignment overseas to watch his boy play one Saturday.

“I played terrible,” said Sean. “After the game, he waited for me outside of the locker room and I came out and he hugged me and said, ‘Sean you were marvelous out there today.’ I said, ‘No, Dad, that was the worst game I ever had.’ He said, ‘No. You were getting beat up and you kept getting up. I’ve never been so proud of you.’

“It made me feel so good. You talk to any one of us kids and the first thing we would say about our dad is that he affirmed the individual, always. He believed in you and was so positive and that’s how he was with everyone.”

What a wonderful tribute to a father. But also something we should be saying about leaders in business.

One of the fastest-growing fields of study today is “positive psychology,” with research being conducted on what creates well-being and what contributes to us humans “flourishing.” It’s a lesson that too many managers fail to learn. Criticism rarely motivates, praise and appreciation do.

We’ve all seen this in our personal lives—maybe coaches berating their little players: “Do you think you could throw the ball away just one more time?” one asks sarcastically, or “That other kid can do it, and you are bigger than him.”

Actually worse are coaches who don’t understand their role in motivating players, believing they should be stoic Tom Landry type: “I may not praise a lot, but when I say ‘good job’ my players know I mean it.”

Research supporting the effectiveness of positive, frequent praise goes back almost a century to 1925 when Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock measured the impact of types of feedback on fourth- and sixth-grade students in a math class.

In the test, one control group was praised, another was criticized and the third was ignored. The number of math problems solved by each group was measured on days two through five. As early as day two, students in the “praised” group were performing at a dramatically higher level than the “criticized” or “ignored” students, increasing the number of solved math problems by 71 percent during the study. In contrast, the “criticized” group increased by 19 percent and the “ignored” group by just 5 percent.

The bottom line: Praise works better than criticism, and way better than ignoring. Praise empowers people, criticism intimidates, ignoring confuses.

With that said, of course false flattery and praise don’t do much good—just like giving every kid on every team a trophy because they showed up or telling them they are all great ballplayers. But genuine praise—even if it is just for trying hard or getting up when you get knocked down—can go a long way.

It’s a skill every manager needs to use more of on the job.

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Chet Elton is co-author with Adrian Gostick of the bestselling Carrot books, a popular lecturer on motivation, and an influential voice in global workplace trends. He is O.C. Tanner’s lead recognition consultant and researcher and works with numerous Fortune 100 clients. All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results is one of his best collaborations with Gostick.

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