Leadership Excellence: The Power of Positive Reinforcement

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How to get the most from the people you lead? The field of sports coaching offers a powerful tool. Coaching with positive reinforcement involves focusing upon someone’s strengths—what they got right in a particular situation—and then building on that success by describing the next challenge in positive language too. Positive coaching delivers results.

“You got more torque with that left hook by rotating the hip a little more. Did you feel that? If you rotate through the torso down to the ball of the lead foot, you’ll maximise impact next time. I know you can do it.”

Compare this with early coaching styles which drew heavily on military traditions to drive performance: “Don’t give up or you’ll let the side down!” Far from driving the athlete to greater efforts, the words that embed are don’t, give up and let down.

Which coach would you rather work with? Me too. 

Though I’ve been on the receiving end of both styles, I know which one got me to deliver my best results. 

Specific, Measurable, Timely

Positive reinforcement feedback needs to be clear and succinct as well, so that your athlete/employee/speaker-in-training knows exactly why and how that last move was so great. Make feedback not just enthusiastic, but also: specific, measurable and timely. 

“Nice presentation” delivered during an annual performance review is encouraging. “The way you paused for 5 seconds before you delivered the April numbers had everyone on the edge of their seats” delivered after the last PowerPoint slide fades, is far more effective. It lets the person you are coaching know exactly what to build on and how. 

Key Messages in a Sandwich

Jim Thompson in his book Positive Coaching suggests a 75:25 ratio of positive reinforcement to redirection and this ratio is often cited in leadership training. When evaluating speeches at Toastmasters, we sandwich our recommendations—a more positive word than criticisms—between commendations. It is a handy format and achieves close to the same ratio. 

A nervous newbie, who joined our club recently, couldn’t break a lifetime’s experience of public speaking failure and in nine months he faced the prospect of delivering a “father of the bride” speech before family and friends. Every time he ran through his speech, I told him enthusiastically how he had improved. My advice, however, was also sandwiched: “I really liked that you used the whole stage, standing left, right and centre to add emphasis to your story. If you stand in front of the lectern for the punchline of the last anecdote, it would be even more poignant. You maintained eye contact with the audience from each point on the stage which drew us in to your story too.”

Let Them Make Their Own Sandwich Too

Adult-learners learn by doing. Encouraging the person you are coaching to self-identify strengths in addition to external feedback, increases retention. And if they remember what went well, the chances of repeating it increases greatly. So I’d also finish each conversation with the father-of-the-bride by asking him what he thought went well with his speech and how that made him feel. Sure enough on the appointed wedding day, the dreaded speech was such a triumph that he returned to the club, took to the stage and told us about it. Faultlessly!

Key Messages Often

Marshall Goldsmith, in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There emphasises that to change behaviour, you should only focus on one or two areas at the same time. Last weekend I was coaching a woman on how to throw a double jab at my boxing gym. It’s a useful move and it’s easy to discourage someone by overwhelming them with what they’re doing wrong. 

I focused first on what she got right (the structure), then suggested a single new twist to add to up her game (slipping her head to the right to evade an oncoming punch). She continued to improve over the next few minutes, and then I offered a new “sandwich” that focused on the same point (“Leaning to the right is spot-on. Tucking your chin down will add further protection. Keep stepping forward on the second jab to add power—that’s good!”). A few minutes later, she was punching with renewed precision too.   

Mindfulness

Positive reinforcement is about more than words. John Russo, a Head Coach at Hofstra University, encourages coaches to create a “positive environment”. A good leader should be mindful—aware in the moment—of the people and the environment around them.

Assess the situation, empathise with the person in front of you and be ready to change tack in an instant. Aim to instil a sense of safety, respect, a feeling of being valued. It’s important to know where someone is in their skills development journey; it helps to notice facial expressions, tone of voice, body language. Try to appreciate what pressures the person may be under; learn about their larger personal strengths and challenges. “Know your audience” applies just as much in coaching and leading as it does in sales and marketing.

New Coaching and Leadership Skills Take Time

Of course, it’s easier to list failings and leave the recipient to it. Nobody said leadership was easy—or intuitive. But it’s a skill like any other that gets easier over time. Identifying strengths, and wording challenges in positive language makes a difference.  Take the time to find something positive to highlight. Encourage your athlete/employee/novice speaker to address a weakness—no, make that “address the next challenge”! It may take longer than simply identifying a mistake, but positive reinforcement achieves the desired outcomes faster.

A Brain is a Powerful Thing

Whether we are in a leadership position at work, coaching an athlete, or mentoring a novice speechmaker, the good news is positive reinforcement is highly effective for all. And it’s even backed by science. 

Neuroscientists have identified a section of the brain called the limbic system and in particular, the amygdala that control our emotional responses. Feed in negativity and they will focus on that. Positive reinforcement however causes the amygdala to light up, which then motivates us to achieve the desired outcome. If you believe you can achieve something, you are already on the road to success. 

Summary

  • Highlight strengths to build on
  • Make your feedback specific, measurable, timely
  • Put key messages in a sandwich
  • Let them make their own sandwich too
  • Deliver a few key messages often
  • Be mindful of your audience’s needs and environment
  • Take the time to make positive reinforcement sandwiches a habit

Positive reinforcement can be applied not only at work, sport and in speech training, but in any situation in which skill or performance matter. Give it a try and watch the results appear!

Ben Starling