Leadership and the Power of Small Wins
A huge influencer in life is reward. Psychologists learned this early on as a result of animal experiments. You could shock, speak sternly or even, heaven forbid, hit a small furry animal but it would not move an inch towards a goal. Quite the reverse. It would freeze. However the piece of cheese at the goal mouth worked a treat. Humans are not dissimilar. Whether we want to admit it or not we all like to be rewarded and not just with money, though every little helps, but praise and encouragement are as important to us as the air we breathe.
Giving feedback in the workplace to colleagues and staff is essential to help them feel comfortable with what they are doing and if necessary help them change. Reward at a more fundamental level is a greeting in the morning or a smile in passing. Deprivation of this positive social interaction leads to an uncaring attitude and a “psychopathic” organisation.
Diminishing people by ignoring them, putting them or their ideas down or talking over people at meetings are common workplace practices and are not conducive to success. Criticism can be very positive and helpful if delivered in a friendly and self-developing way. People who practise effective leadership understand this. But sarcasm simply makes people feel inadequate. It erodes self –confidence, leads to resentment and over cautious behaviour. People hide their mistakes around a bully. A new CEO wandering around a factory lifted a tarpaulin draped over a piece of machinery. There was a tag attached which stated ‘urgently needed for June 2010’. The team involved knew that the machine didn’t work and simply hid it from view. The previous CEO had a temper and employees were constantly in fear of losing their jobs so mistakes were hidden. The sad thing about that machine is that no one noticed.
Some organisations are prone to blaming, none more than our political organisations and the media. Witch hunts are commonplace and newspapers survive on the latest slurs. And yet we know that reward works. I asked a journalist once about this media negativity. Exposure and blame he said were true, strong journalistic tactics whereas that other ‘nice’ stuff was limp and sissy. Of course there is a place for eradicating underhand dealing and hypocrisy but surely there can also be celebration and success.
It was Bill Clinton at a speech in the Albert Hall a few years ago who said ‘call me old fashioned but I believe dropping food parcels will influence those in Iraq more than dropping bombs’. The ultimate I suppose in reward versus punishment.
I met Teresa Amabile, Harvard Professor, in Atlanta where she was discussing her latest book The Progress Principle. She had asked over 200 workers from 7 companies to keep a daily diary of events, feelings and actions over 4 months. The results were remarkable.
Workplace happiness was mentioned in diaries when a leader provided positive feedback on their progress and there was even a carryover effect lasting up to two days. A good mood has a lasting effect, generating a greater variety of thinking and this led to new ideas at work. Support from their leaders was an essential component in good workplace performance. Where there was conflict and competition at the top, performance was reduced.
Internal or ‘intrinsic’ motivation was a major factor too with those who really enjoyed the challenge of their work being more productive than those who simply saw it as a job. Where there were promises of rewards, fear of poor evaluations, or competitiveness then the opposite was true. They were less productive, less happy and were less creative. So ‘worker of the month’ schemes she discovered actually undermined good performance. It is the instant nature of immediate feedback that works in terms of learning and behaviour. If you wait till the end of the month or the end of the year to be rewarded, you have forgotten what you are being thanked for and so lose the pairing of what you did with the ‘ being noticed’.
So let’s be clear it is the small reward, the thank you, the hand written card on the desk, the everyday progress feedback that really works. If this were a drug it would have a ‘half- life’- that is the time a drug lasts in our systems-of 2 days in terms of effect on behaviour. It costs nothing and has no deleterious side effects!
Did the leaders in Teresa’s study understand the power of providing feedback on progress or as she calls it ‘the power of small wins’? They did not. When asked what leadership skills made a difference to workforce performance they rated progress feedback at the bottom of the list.
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