Monday, October 18, 2010

Using Reinforcement Well – In General, Be specific

Here's a guest post by New York Times bestselling author Tom Connellan:

The tendency for most leaders in this situation is to mention what’s good in general terms and be more specific about the faults. As in: “Overall, you did a good job on the presentation, Christine, but the first slide is really cluttered, and there aren’t enough graphics on any of the slides. Oh yeah, one other thing—you need to work on your punctuation.”

This approach doesn’t provide enough information, so Christine will be left feeling uncertain about how to improve the presentation. And even though it started with a compliment, the overall tone is negative.

If you use vague reinforcement like this regularly, it will condition Christine to wait for the other shoe to drop. After being told “It’s good, but . . .” too many times, she will stop hearing the positives and just brace herself for whatever comes after the “but.” Eventually, because she fears and expects the criticism, she will become unresponsive to compliments and immune to reinforcement.

Some managers – from a variety of functional areas still use the “sandwich interview” approach.

Christine and all her fellow reps will begin to assume that every interaction with you will be unpleasant. They’ll avoid you or tune you out. Maybe both. And you can’t help your sales reps improve their performance and boost sales if you can’t interact with them!

Although they will learn quickly what’s wrong about their work, they will never find out what’s right with it. For instance, because Christine doesn’t know what’s right with her PowerPoint, she has no model to follow, so she has nothing to emulate the next time she needs to put together a presentation. She will never become self-sufficient but will always depend on others for guidance.

So be just as specific about what’s right with a person’s work as what’s wrong with it. You might say: “Overall, you did a good job on the presentation, Christine. Let’s go through it pretty much screen by screen.” If it’s not even a good overall job, you can start with “You’ve got some good parts here and you’ve got some parts that aren’t so good. Let’s go through everything pretty much screen by screen.”

“The first page has a lot of text on it, which might make it hard for the customer to read. You handled the next few screens very well. I like the way you summarize the benefits of the Flambolwitz so clearly in bullet points. Double-check pages two through four, as there are a couple of punctuation errors on there, as you can see from my notes.

An additional graph as a summary slide comparing the features and benefits of our new product with our closest competitors would help the customer understand why ours is a better choice. Pages nine and ten are especially good at explaining why they should switch. Very persuasive.”

Review someone’s work in the natural order in which it occurs, rather than puzzling over whether to talk about all the good aspects first then the bad, or bad then good, or alternating between good and bad. If you put a lot of energy into deciding which aspect to discuss first, the person will be trying so hard to figure out why you chose that order that she may miss the important feedback you are giving. If you’re talking about a pattern of behavior rather than a document, the beginning-to-end rule still applies; you review how the events unfolded, from start to finish.

About Tom Connellan:
Tom is a New York Times Bestselling author and keynote speaker whose clients include FedEx, Nieman Marcus, Home Depot, and Sony. His newest book is Turbulent Times Leadership for Sales Managers. More about Tom at


Patrick said...

Hello Dan,
Thanks so much! I learned a lot from your post.
In the past, I found most people always said “Your presentation looks pretty good at all, but……” to someone who was making a presentation. Based on my personal experience, I seldom pay more attention to what they said about my good parts and actually most people didn’t point out what parts I was good at. So I found I still had a lot of problems when I made a presentation next time, and even some of them are good parts I did before because I didn’t emulate good model to follow and I didn’t know they are good.
Anyway, I like the following sentence you shared with us and I repeated them again in here.
So be just as specific about what’s right with a person’s work as what’s wrong with it.
If you’re talking about a pattern of behavior rather than a document, the beginning-to-end rule still applies; you review how the events unfolded, from start to finish.

Ian said...

I really like Tom's ideas here. For me personally, I always feel like the more specific feedback (whether positive or negative), the better. While it's nice to hear that you did a "good job" on some task, that's such a common everyday phrase that it loses a lot of its meaning and emphasis in one-on-one feedback. The more detail oriented you are, the more you will connect with the person you are giving feedback to.

Monica Postell said...

Thanks for the model statements. I appreciate reading not only what to do but being given a model. I always advise supervisors to be specific in their praise if they want to see a behavior repeated. Praise feels better, too, if it stands alone for at least a moment. If it's followed by the heinous terminators "but" or "however" the value is lost.

Dan McCarthy said...

Patrick, Ian, Monica -
Thanks. Glad you enjoyed Tom's advice.

Derek Irvine said...

Great post. I hate the compliment sandwich.

“Great job on that task, but you forgot this one critical step. I know you you’ll get it next time as you are so conscientious!” This is a confusing message to employees. Did they really do a good job if an important step was missed? Offer constructive criticism, which is itself desired by employees, separate from praise for work well done.

It's the "Authentic" component of my advice on effective recognition -- specific, actionable and authentic.

More on the other two elements here:

Dan Zaccagnino said...

Dan, nice find, Tom's very insightful. I agree with his assessment. If you’re too vague then nothing can be achieved through being evaluated. If you’re precise in your evaluation, line-by-line, slide-by-slide, etc. the person receiving constructive criticism can learn. I like this approach personally as long as the person evaluating is providing constructive criticism and not just criticizing.

Julie-Ann said...

Great piece! Good managers know how to communicate and they are excellent at reinforcing positive behaviors. When it’s time to focus employees in the right direction, simple pats on the back can also go a long way. As this piece ( suggests, it doesn’t have to take a lot to get results.