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Meiss Education Institute

The Coach as Cheerleader: Praising Good Performance
By Rich Meiss

Coaching For Results Series: ll

You are a rare person if you are reading this article, because most people think that they do a good job of praising good performance. But research published by the Gallup Organization proves otherwise. In studies that have interviewed over one million employees, it was determined that the main reason people leave organizations is because of their immediate manager. The research shows that people don’t leave organizations, they leave managers. And one of the main reasons they do is because “managers don’t seem to care about me as a person – they don’t encourage my development.” Gallup’s research is famous for identifying the levels of engagement among workers today. Their ongoing research shows the following:*
  • About 25% of America’s workforce today is “engaged” in their work – they work with passion and feel a profound connection to their organization.
  • Approximately 55% of the workforce is “not engaged” – they put their time in, but are essentially “checked out”. They put no energy or passion into their work.
  • About 20% of the workforce is “actively disengaged”. These workers are actually trying to undermine the efforts of everyone else. They are unhappy, and they are busy acting out their unhappiness.
So what is one of the key contributors to employee engagement? This study indicates that “supervisors play a crucial role in worker well-being and engagement”. And one of the ways that they do this is through praising good performance.  Effective supervisors recognize that to be an effective coach, they need to learn how to be a cheerleader.

How to Praise Good Performance

There are three simple steps that coaches can take to be good cheerleaders:
  1. First, define what “good” looks like. Make sure to develop a checklist of behaviors that are appropriate for each performer in his/her job. 
  2. Then, when you see the good behavior, say something. Catch people doing things right – and tell them.
  3. Finally, be specific. Tell the team member what he/she did that was good.
Defining What “Good” Looks Like

To illustrate step number one, define what “good” looks like, let me share this example from my family life. A few years ago, my wife and I were struggling with our 13-year old son Will’s impossibly messy behavior. His room was a disaster. Dresser drawers were left open, clothes were strewn about the room, and his toys were scattered about as well. His bed was seldom made, and pop cans and food and candy wrappers were left about the room. As good parents, we tried everything we knew to change this behavior, including rewards and punishment. But one day we realized that we had never really defined for Will what a “clean” room looked like. So we went into Will’s bedroom one Saturday morning and told him we were going to help him clean his room. We made the bed up according to our standards, hung certain clothes in the closet, and folded and put into the dresser drawers other clothes. We even showed Will that with just a gentle push, the dresser drawers actually went shut! And we picked up toys, and straightened out his play area.

Then I asked Will to get our Polaroid Camera (this was a bit before the digital age). We took a picture of the bed, all made up and looking good. We took a picture of the closet with doors open, showing all the clothes hanging neatly in a row. We even took a picture of the dresser with the drawers shut (and clothes folded neatly therein). Finally, we took a picture of the re-arranged and picked-up play area. We then pasted these four pictures on a piece of cardboard. “This,” we announced to our son, “is what a clean room looks like! And now, when we ask you to make sure your room is clean, what we mean is that it should look like the pictures.”

What we realized in this process is that we had never really defined what “good” looked like for our son. Ask any 13-year old if his room is clean, and he’ll probably respond “yes”. But the key question is this: “By whose standards is it clean?” We wanted Will to understand that the room needed to meet our standards; his job was to make sure the room looked like the pictures before he went out to play with his friends. Our job as parents was now much easier, because we had a common definition of what “clean” or “good” looked like.

As coaches, we need to make sure that we have defined what good looks like for our employees. Usually this means clarifying the values of the department or organization – the principles or standards by which we agree to operate. This also means that we have agreement on what are the major goals for the department and the employee. What objectives is he/she working to accomplish to move the department and/or organization in the agreed-upon direction. The clearer this picture of “good” is, the more effectively we can coach. While we may not actually take pictures, it is a good idea to write out what behaviors and results are expected - to give the employee a target to shoot for.

Opening Your Mouth to Reinforce Good Behavior

Once there are a set of agreed-upon values, standards and objectives (what “good” looks like), then the coach’s job becomes largely that of reinforcing the good behavior and re-directing the poor behavior. In the next article we will talk about how to re-direct the poor behavior. For purposes of this article, we will focus on praising the good behavior.

Each time you catch an employee doing something right, open your mouth and acknowledge the good behavior. While this seems like such an easy thing to do, most managers and coaches admit that they don’t do a very good job of it. In our coaching seminars, we ask managers to brainstorm why they think there is not more cheerleading going on in organizations today. Here is a representative list of some of the answers we get:
1.  “We pay people, so why do they also need to be praised?”
2. “I’m too busy to be passing out compliments all day.”
3. “It’s easier to tell people what they did wrong than what they did well.”
4. “If I praise people too much, they might get a big head.”

While all of these reasons might have a grain of truth in them, managers who think this way miss one of the most important elements of human nature. Harvard professor William James , the “father of modern psychology”said it this way: “The deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated.” Notice that he did not say this is a need, a want or a desire. He said it is a CRAVING. Everyone needs to hear that they are dong a good job, at least once in a while.

Let’s return to Gallup’s research and the reasons why people are either engaged or not engaged in their work life. When researchers asked whether supervisors focused on their strengths, 77% of engaged workers strongly agreed, while only 23% of not engaged workers agreed.   This was one of the main factors for a lack of employee engagement – not feeling appreciated!

Make Your Praise Specific

The final key element to being a good cheerleader is to make sure you are specific with your praise. In my seminars, I use this example to make my point. I tell participants that I am going to be back in a moment, and then I walk out of the room. I pick up a roll of masking tape, and then re-enter the room in a rather violent fashion. I swing open the door, and then slam it shut behind me. I say very loudly and emphatically: “I am so sick and tired of what’s going on around here! If you people don’t shape up, something bad is going to happen!” As I say these words, I throw the roll of tape to the ground, and then slap my hand down on an open table in the room. Of course the participants are startled and taken aback – until I smile and let them know that I am just play-acting. After a few moments of calming down, I ask them:
“What did you observe in the last few seconds as I came into the room?”  Responses will vary, but they always include comments such as:
          “You were out of control!”
          “You were angry!”
          “You seemed like you had gone crazy!”
          “You lost your temper!”

I then ask the group how many of them enjoy watching crime dramas on television, especially watching the court scenes on these shows. A number of people will raise their hands. I then set up this scenario and ask a question. “Imagine a court room scenario, with a trial taking place. A witness is on the stand, and he makes several statements like this: “He (the defendant) was out of control- he was very angry.” The defense attorney jumps up at this point and says: “Objection your honor – speculation on the part of the witness!”

The question I then ask is this: “What would the judge rule – at least most of the time – in this situation? Would the judge rule that the objection is sustained, or over-ruled?” As people think about it, several will usually say “sustained”. In other words, the witness cannot use non-specific language to describe the defendant’s behavior. He would have to say things like: “The defendant was yelling loudly, and holding his fists up as if he wanted to fight.” This would now be acceptable testimony on the part of the witness – because it is OBSERVABLE and SPECIFIC!

Finally, I go back to my original question about my earlier behavior. “So once again, what did you observe a few moments ago about my behavior?” Now the group is beginning to understand my point, and the comments include:
          “You slammed the door behind you as you walked into the room!”
          “Your voice level was 3 times higher than it has been today!”
          “You threw some tape on the floor, and slammed your fist on the table!”
The point has been made! Just as a good witness needs to be specific in describing a defendant’s behavior in a court of law, a good coach will be specific in describing a team member’s behavior to be effective in a coaching situation!

So how do you coach specifically? You do so by answering the question: What did you see or hear – what specific words did the contributor say, or what specific behaviors did he/she display - that is worthy of your praise?
“Joe, your extra effort in covering phones today really helped us serve our customers.”
“Becky, the soft tone of voice you used with that upset customer really helped calm the 
situation and resolve the problem. Congratulations!”

Specific praise that reinforces the good behavior is almost always believed, and increases the chances that the behavior will continue. General praise is often not believed. Even though it is nice to hear that “you did a good job”, most people would much rather be given a specific reason why their performance was good.
So, to be an effective cheerleader, remember these three keys:
  1. First, define what “good” looks like. Make sure to develop a checklist of behaviors that are appropriate for each performer in his/her job. 
  2. Then, when you see the good behavior, say something. Catch people doing things right – and tell them.
  3. Finally, be specific. Tell the team member what he/she did that was good.
By doing these three things, you and your team members will be the benefactors!
 
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