There seems to be a tendency amongst most people to notice when things go wrong – we are very observant when it comes to mistakes that are made, being quick to point out the faults of others (doing what they should not have done) or noting their neglectful behaviour (not doing what they should have done). Perhaps with a small dose of self-righteousness, we become critical in our hearts and we cease to notice that which is good or even great about the person. We miss out on the opportunity of encouragement, of showing appreciation for the good that is there.

Donald Petersen, former chairman of Ford Motor Company, daily sat at his desk in his oversized office to write sincere handwritten notes of thanks to many of his colleagues and staff. He argued: “The most important ten minutes of your day are those you spend doing something to boost the people you work with” (Fred Bauer, Heart at Work: Stories and Strategies for Building Self-Esteem and Reawakening the Soul at Work) – interesting detail about the chairman of such a large company. I am sure he spent much of his time working on strategy and high-level thinking activities, but it is significant that he believed that one of the most important aspects of his role was to express honest appreciation to those who worked with him. There are three important lessons that we can learn from Donald Petersen:

  • A belief in being generous with praise – praise seems to be a “commodity” that is in serious short supply in our world today. There seems to be suspicion around motive (in being showed this appreciation – what does this person want from me?) or personally (in giving this appreciation – am I being too generous in this praise?). Perhaps what is required is a change in our belief – people, fundamentally, have a need of being honoured and appreciated and a change in belief means that we develop an attitude of seeking that which deserves appreciation and display the same by making a point of expressing it. A change in belief translates into deliberate behaviour. Donald Petersen believed that his role was to boost the people under his care.
  • A belief in the recognition of small things that people get right – Donald Petersen used simple hand-written notes to acknowledge good or productive behaviour, often relating to the most modest of accomplishments. He didn’t thank people only for significant achievements, but also noted the dedication of a clerk or the accuracy of a data-capturer. He made a point of cheering accomplishments that often go unnoticed.
  • A belief in accelerating the frequency of offering praise – Donald Petersen made meting out appreciation a daily priority. As such, he was able to notice things going right more naturally. He had developed the habit of finding the good. Although seemingly counterintuitive, we need to praise more than we believe we should. Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler suggest similarly in their book, Crucial Confrontations. They encourage frequency in their statement: “Praise more than you think you should and then double it”.

A deliberate attempt to “find people doing things right” is necessary for a leader to create an environment where employees focus on behaviours that bring consistent and favourable results. Mother Theresa noted that there seems to be more hunger in this world for love and appreciation than there is for bread – she was probably right. Leaders can meet this need.

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