One of my favorite leadership experiments happened when I was a band teacher. If you know my origin story, you know there was a time when I was a very negative leader. Part of the turn-around in the late 1990’s involved the revelation of the power of positive feedback.
I decided to do a radical experiment for a week.
I wanted to see what would happen if I only made positive comments. I ignored all opportunities to correct; instead, I only mentioned things that were going well. For example, instead of dwelling on some bad tone quality, I’d find something else to point out, like “Nice progress on the run in the clarinet section there; keep that up.”
Despite the fact that I didn’t push any section or individual to fix anything, something happened: Focus was the best it had ever been, effort was the best it had ever been, and the time flew by.
Afterwards, Traci came up to me and asked, very curious, “What did you do differently today?”
I wanted the experiment to last longer, so I replied, “I’m not telling yet.”
“Well, whatever it is, keep it up!”
It was a striking first step in a journey that lasts to this day. I’m still tempted to only point out the negative I see, because I’m obsessed with fixing things and shoring up weaknesses, but I need to remember that simple experiment from the past. Now, it’s not totally sustainable; it will ring false to never give critical feedback. People want to get better.
Remember to shoot for the 3 to 1 ratio of positive to critical.
But if you struggle with making only negative comments, consider the “positive feedback only” experiment. What if you did that for a week?