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By Francis Wade

Thursday, August 23, 2012.

Anyone who has run in a few road races in Jamaica will tell you this: there are a lot of spectators who will shout that you are stupid, crazy, mad to be running around the road in the hot sun.By contrast, anyone who has run in a road race in North America can tell you about the generous cheers of encouragement that they receive from total strangers.

Why does this difference exist when we are such avid lovers of track and field, and so successful at it?

My own observation is that we don't shout these insults at tourists who enter local road races, which makes me think that there is something else motivating these 'tear-downs', which are not very different from the behaviour we find in our companies.

Tearing each other down

A casual comparison indicates that our managers, and employees, spend a great deal of time tearing each other down and very little time boosting each other up. In a prior column, I shared my observation that one reason that Jamaicans thrive when they go abroad is that they receive so much immediate feedback.

On one level, it means that the consequences of poor performance are fast, harsh and cold. On another level, however, it means that there is a great deal of encouragement for small things that are done well, from all directions, which sends very clear signals about the behaviour that's preferred.

I remember finding some of it embarrassing when I lived and worked in the US. A small act would attract what I thought to be a bit too much encouragement, and I sometimes wondered if I was like a kid bringing home an ugly piece of art to rapturous applause from his parents. Beyond the embarrassment, however, lies research that shows that giving frequent encouragement is exactly the right approach to take.

The Jamaican employee, however, remains chronically under-appreciated and managers should do more in this area, not because they are nice and courteous people, but because it impacts the bottom line so directly.

According to research curated by Michael Carter in "Why Workers Won't Work: The Case of the Jamaican Worker", it's clear that many employees feel unappreciated. In one survey, it showed up as the number-one thing that workers want to change about their jobs. "More pay" was fourth.

When this behaviour is wedded to a manager's tendency to take all the credit and assign all the blame, the situation quickly descends into one that's destructive to employee morale.

Some managers complain that when things are going badly there is little to find that's positive in their employees' behaviour and they don't want to be liars. There's actually no need to be untruthful.

Exercising a weak muscle

I once participated in a training simulation which involved giving positive feedback to a perfect stranger. At first, it was excruciating, but after a few seconds of truly paying attention, it became increasingly easy, making me think that it was just a matter of exercising a weak muscle — painful at first, but easy with just a few minutes of practice.

This gives us a clue as to how to make large-scale changes. If you are a manager, or an employee who wants to develop this new skill, start by assuming that you are just a beginner on a global scale, just by virtue of your corporate culture and your desire to improve. Then, make a list of people you meet each day on the job.

Commit yourself to never leaving the office each day without acknowledging 10 people in a way that makes them notice. Push yourself to where it may be uncomfortable; like many behaviour changes, the act of giving positive feedback can be learned through diligent and consistent practice.

While the best training techniques involve videotaped feedback and set role-plays, any individual can become much better at this skill by following these steps, and receiving a rich dividend for little effort.

There are people in the office, at home and running on the road who would love to experience this mutual benefit.

Francis Wade is a consultant with Framework Consulting. He can be reached at columns@fwconsulting.com

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