Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
“Call on me!” I quietly implored as I used my left arm to hold my right arm high above my desk. Miss McCloud, my first-grade teacher (and the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth) had just asked the class to identify the color of the flower in her hand. I waved my arm wildly because I was confident in my answer. To be honest, I saw myself as a bit of a color savant. Plus, I really wanted Miss McCloud to admire me for knowing the correct answer so I could bask in the glow of her approving smile. Did I mention she was the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth?
At that time in my academic career, I had been in school long enough to have figured out the three axioms of education: (1) questions have right and wrong answers and it’s good to give the right answer, (2) it’s even more satisfying to give the right answer after someone else has given the wrong answer, and (3) it’s pure bliss to give the right answer after everyone else has given the wrong answer. Then Miss McCloud really piled on the praise.
As the years passed, the axioms didn’t change much, but the nature of the questions did. By the time I was in college, the average query was far too complicated to be satisfied with a simple answer. I still raised my hand every chance I got in hopes of gaining attention, but rare was the day when others gave a flat-out wrong answer that I could easily correct in order to earn the professor’s special approval.
So I had to learn a new skill. I had to learn how to spot flaws in others’ arguments. Sure, my classmates would offer answers that were mostly correct (or at least correct in principle), but if I applied myself to the task, I could always find a flaw, point it out, and grab the spotlight.
When I moved on to grad school, I discovered that finding flaws in what others had to say wasn’t merely a rewarding hobby; it was academia’s prime directive. My classmates and I would sit in our Colosseum-shaped classrooms, listen to each other’s comments, eagerly spot a mistake, and then in gladiator fashion, swoop in and strike down the egregious logical lapse or factual faux pas. We were nit-picky, we were brutal, and we loved it.
Later, when I became a team leader, I used my growing talent for detecting mistakes by practicing what is known as “management-by-exception.” I wouldn’t say much to my direct reports when they were doing well—that would be disruptive. However, if they took a misstep, I’d speak up immediately so the problem wouldn’t escalate.
Raising children was no different. My eyes were drawn to mistakes far more often than they were to success. Nobody walks by two children playing quietly and praises them for playing quietly. It’s inconceivable. If kids are playing quietly, you don’t even see them, let alone praise them.
Once when I was working in Brazil, my “spot the error” routine was challenged. Dale Carnegie, in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggested that in order to be a decent human being, I ought to look feverishly for things done well and then offer up hearty approbation and lavish praise—not just once in a while, but all the time.
If this wasn’t radical enough, Carnegie challenged me to praise a total stranger, just to see what it was like. Of course, to follow his advice, I would have to spot something praiseworthy. And if anything should be clear by now it’s that I hadn’t been trained to see “things gone right.” For several days I looked for a praiseworthy accomplishment, but to no avail.
Then I finally struck gold. I was riding a bus through the streets of a small town near Rio de Janeiro. Inside my head Dale Carnegie was screaming, “Look for something good!” It was really annoying. Suddenly, the young man taking money for the bus fare caught my eye. He had a dreadful job. He sold bus tickets by winding his way through a crowded, speeding bus. People crabbed at him, the driver ridiculed him, chickens pecked him, and then there was the ghastly smell of a crowd of passengers who believed that bathing was for sissies. In spite of all this, the young man was the picture of professionalism.
I told him just that. I pointed out how well and quickly he made change. I mentioned that I admired his ability to keep his balance and remain polite and pleasant. And I meant it.
Bingo. I had done it. I had followed Carnegie’s admonition about approbation. Now what? First came a pause. The guy was thinking about what I had just said. Finally the young fellow smiled widely and gave me a big hug. Tears were running down his cheeks.
The bus employee introduced himself as Carlo Pereira. He explained that he had dropped out of school at age fifteen and worked as a ticket taker to help support his mother. I was the first person who had ever praised him, despite the fact that every single day for three years he had tried to do his best. Carlo then introduced me to everyone on the bus as his “American friend,” and from that day forward wouldn’t accept my money if I happened to board his vehicle.
Carlo’s devotion only grew. As I was walking down the street one day, he had the driver pull over and pick me up. Then Carlo told the driver to change routes so he could deliver me to the door of my next appointment—which, as you might guess, didn’t go down well with the other passengers. They were about to be transported blocks away from where they were originally hoping to go and were now threatening to cause Carlo bodily harm. Carlo didn’t care. I was the only customer he was concerned about. I was the only person who had ever complimented him.
Naturally, I was stunned by Carlo’s reaction to the heartfelt but simple praise I had expressed. But I later made sense of Carlo’s response. I learned that in annual corporate surveys, the number-one complaint of employees is always the same. Their leaders don’t recognize them for doing a good job. Since most bosses go through the spot-the-error educational system I went through and observe their own leaders routinely model management-by-exception, they also focus on problems, not success. In fact, generous praise isn’t even a small part of most leaders’ influence repertoire. Employees hate this lopsided treatment. They do their best work and look around to see if anyone notices, but nobody does. It turns out everyone is Carlo. Everyone is waiting for a heartfelt compliment.
And now for the punch line. You can be the stranger on the bus. Maybe you already are. But if you aren’t, or aren’t as often as you’d like to be, now is your chance. Supplement your talent for spotting problems with the ability to see things going right. Then break years of tradition and say something. Remember, be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise. Not because you want a free ride for the rest of your life, but because Carlo is doing a wonderful job every single day—and he deserves to hear from you.