Leaders’ Obsessive Focus on What Employees Do Wrong

Many leaders seem fixated on pointing out what their employees are doing wrong.  It’s as if they see themselves as omniscient sages whose sole purpose is to constantly remind people about the things they aren’t doing quite right.

Here’s a common situation that occurs in many workplaces and that illustrates how much leaders focus on the negative.  A bright, energetic employee comes to her supervisor with great ideas gleaned from her work experience and ongoing conversations with her employees.  She wants to explore and develop ways to use these ideas to improve how her department functions.  The supervisor listens to her for a minute or so, points out the things that are wrong about her ideas, gives her a lecture about what he sees going wrong, tells her what she should do and sends her off to fulfill his directives.  During the interaction her eyes gloss over and she moves from being excited and engaged to feeling chastised and unimportant.  The irony of the situation is that she had possible solutions to the very problems her supervisor talked about during his unsolicited critique.  Another wasted opportunity to improve their workplace.

It’s not that the supervisor was being evil in this case, it’s just that he’d been programmed to only see what’s wrong and impose his perspective rather than looking for what’s going well or entertaining other possibilities.  So what can leaders do the next time they feel the irresistable urge to critique or offer a “helpful” suggestion?  How about saying or doing something positive?  Let’s look at the difference between the two approaches.

When You Focus on What’s Wrong

Employee: I have this great idea for improving productivity.
Leader: That’s great, let me tell you what we’re going to do (rattles off list of everything that’s going wrong).

When You Focus on the Positive

Employee: I have this great idea for improving productivity.
Leader: I’d love to hear it (the leader listens and then encourages the employee to go do it on her own).

The difference between these two approaches is that one of them focuses on supporting people and encouraging them to grow and succeed.  As leaders, we often spend so much time correcting people that we forget that there is a lot they are doing, or could do, that is very positive.  The trick is to shift from always focusing on the negative to highlighting the positive.  Think about your own experience: Would you rather your boss allowed you to explore your great idea or spent a lot of time telling you why it’s wrong or why you should do it their way?

Leaders have the choice as to how they interact with their employees.  They can create workplaces that constrain and dominate people or environments where new ideas are encouraged and celebrated.  What will you do to focus on the positive things your employees do?

Take care,

Guy



Don't Wait Until It's Too Late, Do It Now
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8 thoughts on “Leaders’ Obsessive Focus on What Employees Do Wrong

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Guy Farmer

      August 6, 2011 at 5:56pm

      Great metaphor Jason, thanks for including my article. Take care, Guy.

  1. [...] August 2011 Leadership Development Carnival August 6, 2011 by Bret L. Simmons · Filed under: Leadership Tweet The August 2011 Leadership Development Carnival is up! Big thanks to Jason Seiden for hosting the carnival and as always to Dan McCarthy for organizing the whole thing. My contribution this month is entitled “The Most Important Social Business Metrics.” Fellow Reno-Sparks resident Guy Farmer has a great post entitled “Leaders’ Obsessive Focus On What Employees Do Wrong.” [...]

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Guy Farmer

      August 6, 2011 at 5:54pm

      Thanks for the mention Bret and great job on your article in the blog carnival. Hope you’re doing wonderfully, Guy.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Guy Farmer

      August 7, 2011 at 9:13pm

      Thanks for the mention Michael. Hope you’re doing well, Guy.

  2. Permalink  ⋅ Reply

    Rick Segel

    August 11, 2011 at 9:58pm

    Great Article! I agree that talented managers that can get the most out of their employees make their staff a powerful asset and a major business differentiator. It has always been my belief that different people learn in different ways, but more often than not employees respond to positive, not negative reinforcement. As a manager engaging and appreciating your employees creates a powerful team who take pride in the business.

    • Permalink  ⋅ Reply

      Guy Farmer

      August 12, 2011 at 3:05am

      Thank you for your insights Rick. I really like the idea of positive reinforcement in the workplace. Great to hear from you, Guy.

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