Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Friday, 2 January 2009

A positive New Year's resolution for 2009

Greetings from one of the places where the New Year 2009 had its earliest beginnings: Sydney, Australia. I sincerely wish my readers health, happiness, growth and learning this year - and I hope that you look forward to achieving your goals even as you appreciate the good things that happened for you in 2008.

At this moment of good intentions, hopefulness and a fresh start to the year, I'd like to suggest a New Year's Resolution that I know will bring delight and greater happiness to those who decide to have a go.

Like most things that consistently work well, it is based on common sense and is not very complicated. In my work with both individuals and groups of people, one of the things that has most often delivered positive outcomes and, well, there's no other word for it, a "feel-good" atmosphere is: the practice of offering sincere, positive feedback to other people.

The Affirm

The technique that describes how to do this most effectively comes from the world of solution-focused practice and is described in the book The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change Simple (Jackson/McKergow 2002, 2007).

The Affirm is a deceptively simple, yet highly effective tool, one that is based on the principle that people feel better (and in organizational terms perform better) when they are appreciated and their strengths, talents and attributes are noticed in a positive way. Giving sincere, positive feedback is one of the most underrated tools in the box. It seems we are stronger at spotting mistakes and homing in on what’s wrong or not so good. And yet how many of us do not warm to the praise of those around us and feel pretty good as a result?

So is this just a matter of giving compliments willy-nilly to anyone and everyone?

Well, no.

You'll have noted by now that I've mentioned the word "sincere" several times. To identify the sort of compliments that leave people deflated and cynical, rather than buoyed-up and energetic, I invite you to imagine the manager who delivers, with the emphatic two-thumbs-up gesture, a loud: "You guys are GREAT!" Such a comment misses the mark entirely because it is insincere, it's unspecific and it's so open-ended as to be totally irrelevant to the receiver.

By contrast, Affirms work as effective positive feedback because they are:
  • Authentic and sincere,
  • Specific and detailed,
  • Relevant to the context
So if, using these points as a guide, we were to coach our well-meaning manager in the example above, he might revise his comment to the team to sound something like, "I think it's great the way you guys worked together to get that widget proposal delivered yesterday - even though there were different ideas on how to get it done, I really like how you managed to build on each other's contributions and produce high-quality work despite a really short lead-time. Well done!"

By cleansing the practice of complimenting others from the stink of insincerity, this technique helps to create a more positive environment, one where it's OK to give and to receive sincere positive feedback and to look for what's working rather than what's not working. It's not only a great way to mind your use of language to help spread some happiness and positivity in the world, it's an absolutely essential ingredient in effective engagement of people and the creation of high-performance teams in the workplace.

Most astoundingly, it can even be used to turn around some quite negative situations. If someone is complaining or "having a moan" about something, you can even Affirm them in such a way that they actually feel heard and are more likely to stop moaning and get on with something more productive!

Because you affirm the person's underlying strength, talent or attribute rather than the moan itself (which is really just a symptom, a transient reactive emotional state they've been triggered into) you actually enable the person to get back in touch with their higher cognitive and more noble qualities. With a gentle prod you can help them become more resourceful and actually get on the path to solving their own problems instead of inflicting them on everyone around them.

Check out this Affirm activity as an example of how this can play out in real life - from my own experience, I've had great results introducing it to people who very quickly get in the spirit of things and revelled in the challenge of finding the person's positive noble qualities lurking beneath even the most cantankerous moaning and bellyaching.

I wish you every success with your Affirming in 2009!

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