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Catch Them Doing Something (small) Right

I've never been one for the small compliments. Those sorts of graces don't come naturally to me. I guess I’m of a practical bent and compliments are not the first things I reach for in my behavioral toy box. I once worked in a place where it was common practice to find every excuse to use those small compliments with each other. I found it strange and awkward at times. I didn’t get it. What’s the point of using these myriad little compliments to celebrate each other? It felt weird.

I had an experience that helped me to better understand how small (even tiny) compliments might be useful. Recently, I found myself on a challenging coaching engagement. These teams were struggling. Everywhere I looked, everything was going wrong. I was looking for where to start and it wasn't obvious. Big change, like introducing new practices, wasn't going to happen yet. They weren’t ready for it. So, I just listened and waited. I was taking a page from Ken Blanchard: try to catch them doing something right. I wanted to find something, anything, that this client was doing well.

The problem is, to use a baseball metaphor, I tend to swing for the fences when I’m coaching. I find myself always looking for the home run. I don’t think I’m alone in this desire. I think as coaches and consultants we often want to find the big change that will revolutionize our client’s world. Something that will make a dramatic difference. After all, making a big splash is fun and garners a lot of attention. Unfortunately, these kinds of “home runs” are pretty rare and often hard to come by. Sometimes what we really need is a lowly base hit. Some small bit of progress to keep the game moving forward.

It wasn't until I attended yet another tedious daily standup that I found that base hit. It was so subtle I almost missed it. It was hidden right at the beginning in something as innocuous as a greeting. Nothing dramatic, just a cheerful, "Good morning and good afternoon!"

This greeting was delivered in such a bright and cheerful way that my day felt just a little bit better. That was it. Just those 5 words. But it was more than just the words, it was the delivery. The way that the words were said. I could feel the positive energy, like somebody was actually happy to see me. Even though we were all on a Zoom call with the cameras turned off: I felt seen.

Later, in a conversation with the team I called out that greeting. I told them what caught my attention, why specifically I felt it was important, and how it made me feel me personally. The person who uttered that greeting positively glowed. I felt a little better too. I had helped to make someone feel better about their daily work with their team. Everyone got a little bit of goodness out of it. Ken Blanchard was right: catch them doing some small thing right.

Of course it makes sense that we should want to catch the teams we coach doing things well. Anything that helps to empower them, and enables us to build trust and influence with them are crucial to any good coaches work. We need to be listening closely to every interaction, constantly seeking that 'aha' moment where we recognize some little bit of good. The smallest bit is all we need.

The alternative is to sit there in silence, waiting for the home run to announce itself, while gradually falling asleep.

So try and catch someone doing something some small thing right, and then you can use the following formula:

  1. Identify what you liked

  2. Tell them why you felt it was important or meaningful (be specific)

  3. Tell them what it means to you personally (how it made you feel)

I know it's a bit formulaic, but that's really all it takes! And it works like a charm.

Of course catching the teams that you coach doing something well is tremendously useful, but you can use this in other places too. For example, you can use it to catch other coaches doing something right. In some ways, it’s even more important to do this with your colleagues. Being a coach is hard work. There isn’t always a lot of success. A little recognition for the little things that we do right can go a long ways toward making a tough day a lot better.

I even noticed that it helps with my family. Catching them doing something well and letting them know helps boost them up too. They feel more empowered and appreciated. Let’s face it, we all need a little boost from time to time. The more often the better. As long as it is genuine , there is every reason to believe that it helps.

I once worked with a really high performing team. We did a lot of things together. We worked together. We ate together, we played Hacky Sack together. We were very social. I would often leave to go to visit clients and discuss various and sundry details. Whenever I came back to the room, the entire team would raise their arms in the air and shout, "Huzzah!" And then quietly go back to working. It was a silly little gag. They did it every time I walked into the room. Every. Single. Time.

And you know what? I kind of liked it. It was frivolous, silly, and just a little mocking, but I felt appreciated. I felt seen. That sort of tiny little celebration can bring just a little cheer to an otherwise gloomy day. It's a way of supporting each other - just a tiny push in the right direction - that gets us back on track and feeling better.

I've been working recently with a very talented coach. He uses this kind of tiny appreciation instinctively. I watch him do it with the client every day. He does it with effortless skill. He starts talking and he points out something that he likes about what they are doing. It's just a gentle nudge - you'd probably miss it if you weren't paying close attention. But people really like working with him. They feel better after talking with him. With just a little gentle reinforcement he has insured that they are going to feel a little better, and maybe try just a little harder. He's an artist at catching people doing some small thing well. That's my new definition of what a good coach does.

So the next time you are working on a team, whether it be at work or at home, try catching them doing some small thing right and then give the Blanchard formula a try:

  1. Identify what you liked

  2. Tell them why you felt it was important or meaningful (be specific)

  3. Tell them what it means to you personally (how it made you feel)

(I owe Tom Looy a debt of gratitude for this idea. Thanks Tom, I feel kind of silly realizing this, but you’ve taught me something important.)

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