Leadership Caffeine™: For a Change, Look At What’s Working

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineConsider these frequently overheard refrains from two different leaders:

Leader 1: “That’s great!  Congratulations!  How do we do more of that?”

Leader 2: “That’s broken and we need to fix it right away.”

We have all met both of these characters.  One sees opportunity and achievement and building blocks everywhere she looks and the other sees flaws and problems that need fixing.

And while you are free to accuse me of making a hasty generalization here, my “blink” assessment of the two is that I want to hire or work for Leader #1

Don’t get me wrong.  I like the attitude of Leader #2 if we’re talking about toilets, sump pumps and just about anything else that is found in the plumbing family. Otherwise, #1 is my choice for manager or project leader.

I’m not certain why some people are pre-disposed to see beauty and what’s right in people and things, and why others see gaps and flaws when looking at the same objects. In the world of leadership, I do worry that some of this reflects bad habits carried forward from early, unsupervised and un-coached first-time leadership roles. More than a few first-time leaders are thrown or drafted into their position with no more idea of what to do than you or I might have if we were asked to perform surgery today, and the instinct to tell, order or criticize is part of a survival strategy.  Left untreated, this early style easily becomes dominant.

And yes, you continuous improvement disciples might appropriately chastise me for discrediting the person that’s looking for things to continuously improve. My focus here is on the impact that these two different leaders have on the people around them.  #1 fuels performance by encouraging people to build on successes and #2 flummoxes people by going for the negatives or the gaps. #1’s style not only doesn’t preclude continuous improvement, I believe it fuels it by reinforcing the notion of doing more of “what’s working.”

I’ve worked for both of these characters at different points during my career, and now when I see them regularly in my client assignments, I’m never surprised to observe that the results are always the same:

  • #1’s teams are productive and creative, and good people migrate towards this leader.
  • #2’s teams are often efficient but lifeless.  Good people seek to escape and those that don’t mind the constant “here’s what’s wrong” view of the world linger on, comfortable in the fact that someone will tell them what to fix.

5 Ideas For Changing Your Leadership View from What’s Wrong to What’s Right:

1.  Project post-mortems or activity debriefs are a great place to start. Instead of the typical, “let’s assess what we did wrong and how we can improve next time,” try: “what did we do right and how can we do more of it next time?” I guarantee that those are two very different conversations.

2.  Set a goal every day to offer one piece of behavioral, business-focused positive feedback every hour. Keep tally of how well you do.  And remember, the feedback has to be genuine, and specific and behavioral enough that someone will understand what to keep doing or to do more of. A classic example is, “nice presentation.”  It’s fine to hear that, but what did you do that was nice?  A more specific example might be, “during your presentation, you really engaged the audience.  Your eye-contact was excellent, your body posture was open and inviting, and best of all, your constant smile warmed everyone up.”

3.  Bite your tongue and hold-off every time you are tempted to criticize. While I don’t want you to short-circuit your use of constructive feedback, I do want you to quit telling everyone what’s wrong, what’s not working and what needs to be fixed.  Replace statements with questions and then shut up and listen!

4.  Try adjusting your altitude just a bit and looking at the big picture of what your team does effectively.  Let them know how impressed you are by their work and their outcomes.

5.  Let your team members find the areas that need to be improved upon, and then encourage them to take ownership of those ideas.  Take it a step further and help knock down some obstacles so that they succeed with their improvement initiatives.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Don’t think for a second that I’m asking you to walk around and avoid dealing with problems.  I am however encouraging you to adjust your focus a bit and start looking at what’s right, what’s working and what you need to do more of, rather than what’s wrong.  If you already do this, do more of it.  And if you’re reading this saying, “that’s not me,” it can’t hurt to try the above suggestions, can it?

Here’s to building on strengths and successes.  And here’s to plumbers everywhere that keep the water flowing!

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:53+00:00 April 26th, 2010|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|7 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Melissa DeAngelo April 26, 2010 at 10:32 am - Reply

    Hi Art,

    I love this article! It’s so important to not only focus on the negatives as leaders, but to let people know what they’re doing right as well. Even more important, as you point out in idea #2, feedback needs to be specific and behavioral. In order for people to understand what they are doing right (or wrong) feedback needs to be more than the generic “good job” or “you suck” statements. This is what makes feedback constructive rather than personal.

    As a side note, I would prefer to work with/for Leader 1 anyday. Unfortunately, I’ve had much more experience with Leader 2.



    • Art Petty April 26, 2010 at 11:24 am - Reply

      Melissa, thanks for your enthusiastic and thoughtful response! You and me both on the Leader #2 experience. -Art

  2. Mackenzie Heys April 26, 2010 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Hi Art,
    Thank you for the great reminder! Sometimes I think we all start to fall into a pattern of fixating on problems and glossing over what is being done correctly. As you mentioned in your post, addressing the current status or situation from a more positive perspective rather than the negative does lead to drastically more productive dialougue. Changing our focus as leaders can make all the differance!
    Thanks again,

    • Art Petty April 26, 2010 at 1:01 pm - Reply

      Mackenzie, my pleasure! A little change of focus can go a long way to helping improve the quality of the workplace atmosphere. Thanks for reading and sharing! -Art

  3. Nicole April 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Hi Art,

    Here is a trick I use when I realize I am being like #2.

    If you think, “That’s broken and we need to fix it” immediately follow that with “and what are some other successful techniques we could do more of to help us address this issue?”.

    Since the fix-what-is-broken reaction is typically a knee jerk reaction that can circumvent even our best intentions, this technique allows you to react, but then spin the conversation to focus on success rather than failure.


    • Art Petty April 26, 2010 at 1:29 pm - Reply

      Great coaching advice-for self and others, Nicole! -Art

  4. Dee May 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    …love this article…thank you…it reminds of the dreaded interview question that still being asked today…what are your weaknesses? The better question is…how do you see yourself building upon your strengths in this position to help the organization meet it’s company goals?

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