One Saturday, back when motivational speaker Sean Covey was a quarterback at Brigham Young University, his father, Stephen R. Covey, rushed back from a work assignment overseas to see his boy play.
“I played terrible,” recalls Covey. “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,” he continues. “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 that should be said about leaders in business.
You’ve seen this in your personal life, perhaps when coaches berate their little players: “Do you think you could throw the ball away just one more time?” one asks harshly. “That other kid can do it, and you’re bigger than him!”
Worse still are coaches who don’t understand their role in motivating players and believe they should be like Tom Landry: “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 different types of feedback on fourth- and sixth-grade students in a math class.
In the test, a control group was praised while another group was criticized and a third group was completely 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.
Here’s the bottom line: Praise works better than criticism, and much better than neglect. Praise empowers people, while criticism intimidates. Neglect, on the other hand, only confuses.
With that said, of course false flattery and praise won’t do much good, just as giving all the kids trophies because they showed up to the game won’t help them improve. But genuine praise, even if it is just for trying hard or getting up when you’re knocked down, can go a long way.
It’s a skill every manager should use more of on the job.