Finding the Positive Opposite

Part of learning good leadership is identifying bad leadership. So, in search of some, I visited a software project where a friend of mine works.

It’s stunning that an activity like programming – where the quality of leadership has an unusually high effect on results – and where so much money is at stake – is an area where bad leadership is the norm.

Here’s one example. Last week my programmer friend had a fairly typical email exchange with half a dozen people, including folks on the client team and some from his group of contract programmers, plus his boss. Soon his boss wrote back to pick at one of the four items from the email: “Don’t bring that topic up in front of certain people.”

My friend fumed over this. Obvious unanswered questions include, Should he have brought it up at all? If so, where when and how? If not, why not, and how is the underlying issue to be addressed? Maybe he was oversensitive, yet the boss could have been a lot better.

Here’s how:

First – always find and mention something positive that your people are doing. If you can’t find something, then either you’ve got terrible people or you’re not looking. Start every communication, especially one that involves a correction, with a legitimate point of praise. Why? Because it’s your job as a leader to tell people when they are doing things right. Its part of your job to define what a good job is, and notice when people act that way.

Second – telling him what he did wrong (or what not to do) is only half of a communication – you need to share with him the thing he should do instead. Yale psychology professor Alan Kazdin calls this the “Positive Opposite” of what you don’t like or don’t want. (Suppressing one behavior you don’t want is not that useful – it may only be replaced by a different behavior you also don’t want. Much better to identify and increase the behavior you do want. To do that, you have to know what you want.)

Third – it’s wrong to criticize someone for doing, or failing to do, something when you didn’t tell them in advance what the rules were. Instead, replace your criticism with a description of what you do want, that doesn’t assume that your subordinate is wrong, bad, mistaken, or in error. (Don’t put him on the defensive, particularly when he can accurately retort that it’s your fault he didn’t know any better. That’s a useless struggle.)

For example:

Jim – thanks for your email bringing up those four points. Once again I see you’re on top of things. I want to ask you in future to not bring up topic X with the client staff – I should have mentioned this earlier, that it’s a bit of a sore point that we’re actively managing. Next time that’s an issue, let me know directly and don’t CC them.

No way you could have known that. If you could help me out by bearing that in mind in the future, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

Here’s an example that might help you remember the value of the positive statement. A pistol instructor was teaching new students the importance of keeping the trigger finger off the trigger until they were ready to actually shoot. It’s a huge safety rule.

The problem was, the students kept failing or forgetting, and he kept nagging them. Finally he hit on the Positive Opposite:

Do you see this little bump here on the frame, above the trigger guard? Put your fingertip right there until you’re ready to fire.

Bingo – the problem went away. By switching away from “don’t do X” and towards “please do Y instead of X” he got much better compliance – and greater safety.

Do this yourself – with your spouse, kids, coworkers and staff: Any time you have a criticism or a “please don’t do this” accompany it with a Positive Opposite of what you do want.

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