“I See You.” How to Catch People Doing Things Right…

I was coaching a healthcare executive who’s caught between a rock and a hard place. The staff at his hospital are unhappy and at one point threatened to quit en masse if changes weren’t made. Why? They feel taken for granted and unappreciated.

This executive is someone with great integrity and commitment to developing his leadership skills . “But what can I do?” he asked. It takes time to meet individually with everyone. He already has so much to do, he could work 18 hours every day of the week and there would still be a long list of things to do.

And he has to be vigilant about standards. If staff isn’t following the safety and compliance procedures, patients die and then there are lawsuits and penalties and somebody gets fired.

“I’ve gotten really good at noticing what people aren’t doing right,” he told me.

“Great,” I said. “So you’ve developed the ‘noticing muscle.’ Now you just need to adjust your filter so you can also see the things people are doing right.”

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Make a decision you’re going to notice what people do right.

Step 2: Let them know what they’re doing right. No need for hyperbole or superlatives: Just tell them what you observed. 

For example, the last time I was at Trader Joe’s, the cashier was so fast packing my groceries that she was done before I could get my earphones out of my bag. So I said: “Wow, you’re so fast, I’ve haven’t even gotten my earphones out of my bag.” Brilliant, right? Hard to believe I came up with that on the spot. But the effect was amazing: she was practically glowing as she gave me a big smile.

Some more examples:

You were really patient with Client X — he seemed very satisfied with your answers.

I saw how gentle you were in moving Patient Y out of bed — he really trusts you. 

Thanks for helping me make my point in the meeting.

Good job staying calm with all the technical issues — you were more poised than I would have been.

Or it could be as simple as a smile and a thumbs-up across the room.

These exchanges don’t take time or cost money. But the energy they generate can have an immeasurable ripple effect.

Because most people are very self-critical and afraid of making mistakes (oh, you thought you were the only one?). So when someone acknowledges what they’ve done right, they feel a greater sense of safety, confidence and motivation to give more of their discretionary effort.

This is not about avoiding constructive feedback or overlooking mistakes or lowering the bar. But years ago, a researcher named Marcial Losada discovered that the 3:1 ratio — three positives for every negative feedback — appeared to be the minimum necessary to achieve high performance. The mathematical framework of the research has since been discredited, but do you really need research to tell you that a high praise-to-criticism ratio is more effective?

For sure, this takes mental agility. You have to be able to shift back and forth between rigorous vigilance and compassionate observation. But it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced. And you have an opportunity to practice every time you interact with someone.