Accentuate the Positive


The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating story yesterday about how many companies are changing the way they evaluate their employees.

Instead of focusing on employees’ weaknesses and past mistakes, employers are now focusing on employees’ strengths and offering them frequent praise.

Why the change?

Could it be that managers have finally figured out that positive feedback is much more productive than negative feedback?

While the article does point out that it is still important to provide honest feedback so that an employee knows where he or she stands, the way such feedback is given is just as crucial and has changed over the years.

Employers need to provide specific feedback on what an employee is doing well, using phrases such as “I liked the professional and timely manner in which you handled the negotiations with our new supplier”and not just saying “You did a  good job.” When there is an area for improvement using phrases such as “This is another way that has been successful” are more effective than just saying “You need to do a better job”.

The general belief is that providing feedback in this way is more motivational than tearing down an employee. While harsh criticism may serve to motivate some employees, the majority of people respond better to positive feedback which makes them feel more appreciated, leading to greater productivity.

As another sign of this movement to focus on the positive aspects StrengthsFinder, a tool designed to measure a person’s talents in an of 34 areas, has become quite popular in the past few years. The tool is used by 467 of the Fortune 500. Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and PricewaterhouseCoopers are major advocates of the value of using Strengths Finder. (In fact, a manager from J&J will be coming to my classes later this semester to administer the Strengths Finder test and provide an analysis of the results).

Not everyone buys into this more positive approach. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix apparently likes to run his company like a sports team, stating that “adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” Yikes!

And I doubt if Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, would put up with this new approach. Often referred to as “Neutron Jack”, Welch’s performance evaluation system at GE was known as “Rank and Yank”. Managers were required to rank their employees into three categories, the top 20%, the middle 70%, and the bottom 10%. If you fell into the bottom 10%, you were fired.

A major problem of such an approach is that the ranking system forced managers to put some of his or her employees into the bottom 10%, even if they were good employees.

It would be like giving out final grades in my course at the end of the semester. If a student had an 77 average for the semester, that would normally be considered a passing grade. However, if that 77 was in the bottom 10% of my class, I would be forced to fail the student.

I don’t see such an approach as being motivational, but I think it could lead to some disruptive behaviors, such as cheating or a willingness to not help your classmates with their work.

Thankfully approaches like Hastings’ and Welch’s seem to be on the way out. I much prefer the kinder, gentler approach more and more companies seem to be taking towards employee evaluations.

Who would have known that Bing Crosby and the Andrews sisters were onto something 70 years ago when they sang “Accentuate the Positive.” Perhaps they could have had another lucrative career as management consultants.


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