When I encountered a problem as a manager, my natural inclination was to delve into it with sharply defined questions like:
The first thing you’ll notice about these questions is that they’re all in the past tense. As we know from studying rhetoric, arguments in the past tense are about laying blame, not about finding solutions. The very way that I phrase my questions lets people know that I’m seeking someone to blame. What’s the natural reaction? People become defensive and bury the evidence.
The second thing you’ll notice is that all my questions are negative. The questions presuppose that nothing good happened. I don’t ask about what went right. I’m just not thinking about it. And neither is anyone else who hears my questions.
In many situations, however, a lot of things do go right. In fact, I would guess that in most organizations most things go right most of the time. Failures are caused by a few things going wrong. It’s rarely the case that everything goes wrong. Focusing on what’s wrong narrows our vision to a small slice of the activity. We don’t see the big picture. It’s self-defeating.
So, I’ve been looking for a systematic way to focus on the positive even when negative things happen. I think I may have found a solution in something called appreciative inquiry or AI.
According to Wikipedia, appreciative inquiry “is based on the assumption that the questions we ask will tend to focus our attention in a particular direction.” Instead of focusing on deficiencies, AI “starts with the belief that every organization, and every person in that organization, has positive aspects that can be built upon.” AI argues that, when people “in an organization are motivated to understand and value the most favorable features of its culture, [the organization] can make rapid improvements”.
The AI model includes four major steps:
The ultimate goal is to “build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t”.
Paul Nutt compares appreciative inquiry to solving a mystery. To get to the bottom of a mystery, we need to know about everything that went on, not just those things that went wrong. Nutt writes that, “A mystery calls for appreciative inquiry, in which skillful questioning is used to get to the bottom of things.”
I’m still learning about appreciative inquiry (and about most everything else) and I’m sure that I’ll write more about it in the future. In the meantime, if you have examples of appreciative inquiry used in an organization, please let me know.
Here’s a little experiment for your next staff meeting. All you need is an open space about ten feet long and maybe three feet wide, two coins, and a flip chart.
Once you’ve cleared the space, set a target on the floor at one end of the ten-foot length. The target can be a trashcan, a book, a purse … anything to mark a fixed location on the floor.
On the flip chart, write down four categories:
Now have one of your colleagues stand at the end of the ten-foot space farthest away from the target and facing away from it. Give her the two coins. Ask her to take one coin and throw it over her shoulder, trying to get it as close as possible to the target.
Observe where the coin lands. If it’s close to the target, praise your colleague lavishly: “That’s great. You’re obviously a natural at this. Keep up the good work.” If the coin falls far from the target, criticize her equally lavishly: “That was awful. You’re just lame at this. You better buck up.”
Now have your colleague throw the second coin and observe whether it’s closer or farther away from the target than the first coin. Now you have four conditions:
Now repeat the process with many colleagues and watch how the tick marks grow. If you’re like most groups, Category 3 (C+) will have the most marks. Conversely, Category 1 (P+) will have the fewest marks.
So, we’ve just proven that criticism is more effective than praise in improving performance, correct? Well, not really.
You may have noticed that throwing a coin over your shoulder is a fairly random act. If the first coin is close, it’s because of chance, not talent. You praise the talent but it’s really just luck. It’s quite likely – again because of chance – that the second coin will be farther away. It’s called regression toward the mean.
Conversely, if the first coin is far away, it’s because of chance. You criticize the poor effort but it’s really just luck. It’s quite likely that the second coin will be closer. Did performance improve? No – we just regressed toward the mean.
What does all this prove? What you tell your colleagues is not the only variable. A lot of other factors – including pure random chance – can influence their behavior. Don’t assume that your coaching is the most important influence.
However, when we do studies that control for other variables, praise is always shown to be more effective at improving performance than criticism. I’ll write more about this soon. Until then, don’t do anything random.
(Note: I adapted this example from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. I think Kahneman may have adapted it from Edwards Deming’s experiment involving a fork and different colored balls.)
Napoleon once said, “When I realized that men were willing to die for bits of colored ribbon, I knew I could rule the world.” It’s a wholly cynical sentiment but Napoleon was famous for creating and distributing military awards, citations, ribbons, medals, and orders. And for many years, it worked — his troops were highly motivated.
Several hundred years after Napoleon, Tony Blair said something quite similar (though I can’t find the exact quote). A journalist noted
that Blair was quite the egalitarian and asked if he might not abolish the English system of knighthoods and lordships. Blair responded (more or less), “You must be joking. The system is the most productive, least costly innovation engine in the world. It’s amazing how hard people will work for a tap on the shoulder from the Queen.”
Surprised that the English and the French might agree on something? Perhaps they’re on to something. The moral of the story is that praise and recognition can motivate people even more than money can. I’m surprised that we don’t use it more. I’ve seen far too many managers who are slow to recognize achievements and grudging with their compliments. I’m surprised because, as Tony Blair notes, praise is an inexpensive and productive way to motivate people.
Here’s an experiment. Ask a married couple what percentage of the house work each one does. Ask them separately so one doesn’t hear the other’s answer. Add the two percentages together. Almost certainly, the sum will be greater than 100%. Why? Because each member of the couple has a very good subjective sense of how hard they work. On the other hand, they don’t have that same sense for the other member of the couple. Each one knows how hard they work. It’s quite common that each one feels they deserve more recognition.
Similarly, after a complex project is concluded, ask each member of the team, “What percentage of the value did you personally deliver?” (Again, ask them separately). If the project team has six or more members, when you sum the responses the answer will very likely be greater than 200%. Each person has an inflated sense of how much they contributed.
As a manager, what should you do? The simple answer is to give more praise than you think is absolutely necessary. In fact, give about twice as much as you would normally do. After all, the French and English can’t both be wrong.