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April 2010

The Perils and Promise of Recognition

by Omar Khan

Psychology gives rise to few absolutes. However there are certain things that are about as clear as life permits. And one of them is the conclusion that if you wish to drive abiding change, reinforcement is critical. And of the types of reinforcement, it’s not even close. Successful positive reinforcement towers above negative reinforcement from all research findings. And yet done incorrectly…it backfires!

More pap has been written on the above few observations in the dubious “history” of self-help than on virtually any other topic.


Some friends of ours were about to leave the stability of a less than ideal, but lucrative job for a daring start-up in the arts. I suggested they not quit their high grossing jobs, until they had the infrastructure in place, and had enough kindling (contacts, savings, strategy) with which to launch. Or, perhaps one could leave and go full time, and the other could continue for some time and they could be true partners in both pragmatism and the arts.

They swatted away this advice saying, “We believe in positive self-regard and the power of positive visualization…”

As soon as people speak like this, my eyes start to glaze. I entered the field of personal change and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in the early 90’s. I launched my career and cut my professional teeth on variants of this observation. And like many pearls of wisdom, nuanced properly, it’s powerful. Taken at literal face value, it’s borderline deranged.

Anyway, they left their work with fanfare, burning their boats as they went, and in six months hit a financial “wall”. They are very talented, and after a few successes I believe they could have made it work. But they found they didn’t wish to change their life-styles, the vacations they took, the timing of planned family events and more. The start-up sputtered, stalled and has stopped. One is back in a less appealing job, the other has moved on to other things. It was an appealing vision and a worthy project, but it needed more than positive hype. It needed self-confrontation as well as self-encouragement And that’s the rub relative to positive reinforcement.


“A thousand mile journey begins with a single step.” Sure…and so does a wayward amble. What’s the difference?

The first difference is focus, the second is purpose, the third is drive, the fourth is reinforcement. And without the fourth, the first three, are dead in the water.

Now when you’re attempting to get somewhere, being told you’re currently “not getting there” is actually helpful. You then know you’re off course, and can change direction, route or strategy. So saying negative reinforcement doesn’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hear the truth about how you’re doing. And this is the big confusion.

If a child narcissistically demands attention, smiling beatifically at them isn’t a strategy. On the other hand making an “identity’ out of their failure, “You have no manners, you are spoiled and I’m going to teach you how to behave…” isn’t necessarily much better. That may then create an aversion to trying anything not fully blessed by the parental censor. Then you have inhibition in place of reckless abandon. Neither are what we should be after.

So confront unconstructive behavior, but reinforce good behavior. There’s a difference. Otherwise you will repeatedly get people focused on what you don’t want them to do. “Don’t be late” and punishment for being late, produces at best, compliance. “We admire proactivity and punctuality” and making positive examples out of those who shine here, helps to create a culture.

Also when we need to tell people what ISN’T good enough, it really helps to focus energy on how to improve the future — which they can still influence as opposed to the past which they can either defend, or feel guilty over. A modicum of guilt as a corrective again can be healthy, but being dunked in it over and over is the emotional equivalent of water boarding.


Many of us are wary of recognition because we feel people will get soft, their standards will slip, and they will mistake good “bedside manner” for real leadership — in the sense of catalyzing the future and releasing the full potential of all organizational assets — including people.

This is a fair concern to some extent. Jack Welch nailed it when he said the biggest failure of most organizational cultures was that people didn’t get a candid read-out of a) how they’re actually doing b) where they stand in the organization relative to others and c) what they have to do in order to grow and flourish in the company. When people get “waffle” here instead, they start to connive, to politick, to curry favor, to form alliances, and indulge in all kinds of organizational tap dancing that is hardly helpful in delivering key organizational goals.

However, it doesn’t follow that positive reinforcement is somehow not candid. We need to search, as Chip and Dan Heath advise, for bright spots. We need to look for legitimate examples we can either point to, or which we can note in people we are seeking to guide and to mentor. So positive reinforcement won’t erode standards when the following conditions are met:

  1. People also hear in real-time when they don’t get it right, but usually with some coaching as to how to do it better going forward.
  2. They are encouraged for specific acts of real value, genuine bright spots, not via insincere flattery or generic applause.
  3. They are reinforced for positive progress consistently, until it becomes habitual, until it becomes something we’re proud of recognizing and fostering. A company culture, after all, is to a large extent, an amalgam of what is actively and consistently reinforced.
  4. We encourage relevant vision and mission-fostering behavior and challenge its absence, rather than matching artificial psychological profiles (I’m a Killer Driver, I’m a Zen-Navigator, how do we tango instead of tangling?). That is how standards and positive reinforcement complement each other.

As a side-bar to the above, we see trainers get dolphins to leap elaborately through hoops, or to enable a line of elephants to arrange themselves on a line and even urinate in unison — all without Myers-Briggs! You might say humans are more complex. Yes, we are, but not in these essentials.


It takes energy to engage people. And out of laziness we sometimes simply follow the mantra, “Set goals, pay them enough and get out of their way. If they’re talented…they’ll find a way.” They will indeed. But what if “their way” collides with “the way” of all of your other talented people and we create dissonance rather than peak performance?

So let’s highlight some key points and clear up some misconceptions here.

  1. You don’t have to be condescending to recognize positive progress or to catch people doing things right.
  2. This is not hierarchical. Bosses need to know when they’re getting it right, so do peers. Adapting from the Bard, one good deed dying “tongue-less” slaughters a thousand as yet unborn. And letting people know what you appreciate and what liberates your passion, helps them also learn how to get the best from you.
  3. Recognition needs feeling and enthusiasm. Feeling is what makes interactive recognition “land” and what makes it both count and matter.
  4. By real-time reinforcement and noting enthusiastically the examples of positive progress, you make deposits in what has been called a self-esteem bank account. And so if you need to make withdrawals, by candidly confronting, you can do so without being overdrawn or provoking emotional melt-downs.
  5. If you don’t challenge non-performance, you lose credibility for recognition. If you don’t recognize, you erode the value of your challenges as they become debilitating rather than inspiring.


If you want a low-tech, high-return, immediate impact strategy for the coming month, at home, at work, with customers, here it is.

Catch people doing things right this coming month. Be specific, be genuine, wait for real “bright spots”, encourage them to continue, and cheer when they do. Equally though, don’t spout rubbish. It’s about credibility and integrity, or it fails.

Have the “appreciation conversation” at work and home. Ask a key person, “What is it you most wish I would appreciate about you that I seem not to?” And you will have a fascinating, possibility-liberating exchange. It will also lead to you being able to candidly share what they can do to enable that appreciation more successfully.

Change is hard, but not harder than marriage and parenting, building a career, learning a new skill, and many other things we manage in our lives.

But we need a vivid and compelling destination. We need to know some key steps we can take to move in that direction initially by which to overthrow inertia. We need an environment and relationships that encourage our progress and reinforce successful behavior. And we need to create a culture of success.

Towards that end, reinforcement works! And positive reinforcement gets us to raise the bar to earn the kudos legitimately going forward, rather than bunkering down to defend ourselves from enemy fire.

Let’s encourage evolution not self-defense! Let’s reinforce growth!