In Search of Good News

Tom Peters

Almost all reporters and cops are cynics. It's hardly surprising. Unless they work for USA Today, reporters start out writing obituaries, go on to cover auto crashes or the local crime beat, advance through corruption at City Hall, and, if they are wildly successful, get to cover major crimes, wars, or famines. Cops, by definition, deal almost exclusively with society's misfits, from the excessively greedy (on Wall Street) to mass murderers.

The average boss, junior or senior, has a lot in common with police officers and reporters. The first-line supervisor or senior middle manager devotes almost all of his or her day to problems on the shop floor or in the committee room. His or her daily fare is labor disputes, rifts between functions within the firm, squabbles with suppliers, franchisees, and customers, cost overruns, and schedule slippages. Ever see a manager poring over a schedule that is being met? I doubt it.

To be sure, all this is what managers get paid for. Nonetheless, the plain fact is that the typical manager, like the aging reporter or police officer, would be hard pressed not to sour as the years roll by.

The consequences of managers' characteristic negativism are predictable—and disastrous. Consider a football team, a Burger King outlet, or a check-processing unit. I repeatedly observe that such organizations perform well if the participants feel good about themselves (competent, autonomous), have a worthwhile goal (a state championship or a quality-improvement award) and are having fun. They are most likely to perform poorly when their self-esteem is low, their autonomy is constrained (they sense the institution's, team's, or firm's lack of faith in them) and their goals are petty (stay out of trouble, avoid the boss's scrutiny, don't risk anything).

But, given the analysis, just how likely is the average coach/boss to be turned-on and energetic—a consistent source of optimism and builder of esteem? The answer is worrisome. While, of course, there are good bosses and good coaches, the majority fail to regularly incite their troops to achieve ever higher plateaus of involvement and quality performance. A principal reason is that pessimism and cynicism come with the turf. That is, they turn people off, not on.

So bosses naturally gravitate toward controlling, nitpicking, cop-like behavior, as an unintentional by-product of being bombarded daily with negative signals. Suspicion breeds suspicion. Negativism breeds negativism. Overcontrol breeds immature, unmotivated, lethargic employee behavior—and performance deteriorates or is lackluster at best.

A critical implication flows from all of this. Bosses of all stripes desperately need to counter-bombard themselves with good news—exciting acts of service to the customer, innovative employee ideas, and acts of spontaneous cooperation between functions.

My long-time friend and mentor, Stew Leonard (of the innovation breeding ground, Stew Leonard's Dairy), Victor Kiam of Remington Products (the razor people), and a number of other stellar leaders I know are fanatics on this very topic. Stew, for instance, will storm out of a meeting when the tone is carping, emphasizing problems rather than achievements. I don't mean to imply that he is oblivious to genuine bad news, but rather that he is consciously working at maintaining a sunny and spirited disposition—which is unquestionably his chief "tool" as one of the world's premier motivators/managers/ entrepreneurs. He seeks out good news, revels in it, and lavishes praise on those who have accomplished large or small tasks, continually exhorting them to do more of the same.

In the superb book Leaders, Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus conclude that the best bosses focus almost exclusively on building followers' strengths, rather than dwelling on shortcomings. As well, football experts say that Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs' chief skill is building (and readily adapting) teams to fit players' strengths, rather than attempting to force fit his pet theories about offensive and defensive tactics onto the current players, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses.

The good news is that those who have been drained of good cheer do not need to throw in the towel. Instead, get the dickens away from behind the desk (bosses' desks might better be dubbed as Problem Central) and hang out with the average employee (rather than the anomalous one whose problem-strewn files finally wend their way to your attention). You'll find that he or she does a heck of a job. You'll end up feeling better categorically about him or her and, not incidentally, yourself. Likewise, schedule regular, informal and formal, recognition events. Of course that's great for your subordinates. But equally important, being around winners buoys your outlook immensely.

I'm surely not counseling you to don a pair of rose-colored glasses. I am suggesting that your perceived reality is badly out of whack, and it's probably costing you dearly. Your perceived negative reality leads you to promulgate more controls and ask for more reports than are needed, offer (and receive) less trust and grant less autonomy than is deserved—thus diminishing individual and team performance potential, perhaps dramatically.

Go out of your way to regularly expose yourself to good news, good (that is, average) people and success stories. In the end, the appropriate role model for an effective manager is that of a cheerleader (spreading the good news and asking others to emulate it), confidence builder and esteem enhancer, not a cop on a crime-infested beat or a corruption reporter.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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