Embracing Average Employee Behavior on the Path to Excellence

Embracing Average on the Path to Excellence

All great leaders want to see their employees succeed. But how do you go about encouraging that success? Some leaders are naturally oriented toward the cognitive, practical aspects of things. They focus on the “what to do,” which is all of the information an employee needs to move toward the goal as quickly as possible. Other leaders are more in tune with how a person feels about their work. They focus on the “want to do,” which is the energy required to apply the information and make progress by tweaking and adjusting as they go.

For employees to be successful, they need both — the “what to do” and the “want to do.”

How to increase the “want to do?” Try giving specific, positive feedback.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Let’s say you’re a supervisor and an employee is supposed to bring you a weekly report by 2pm on Friday. But, they routinely miss that deadline, which makes you late. When that employee finally brings that report at 2pm like they’re supposed to, you may not feel inclined to celebrate that incremental movement toward correct behavior. You may feel that you deserve to feel frustrated because the employee has only done it right one out of five times. But, one thing that really kills an employee’s “want to do” is the feeling that their supervisor only ever notices the mistakes they’ve made. Though it can be hard for a leader to acknowledge correct behavior if it’s not permanent or perfect, the question is, what do you want repeated?

When you see and acknowledge the behavior you want repeated, there’s a much greater chance that the employee will have the “want to do” to do the “what to do” again. But it must be acknowledged very, very specifically. We can’t just pat somebody on the back and say, “Thanks. Good job. You’re a superstar.” That might be a big, slobbery lick on the face, but it’s not repeatable. What’s repeatable is when you say, “Thank you for taking the time earlier in the week to get your information together so that you were able to deliver this report at 2 o’clock, because now I’m going to be able to get my stuff prepared and sent off and still be able to make it to my dinner engagement with friends. I really appreciate that.” Here, you’ve acknowledged exactly what they did well and expressed the positive effect of it.

The difference between useless flattery and constructive acknowledgement is your specific description of the behaviors that created the success. When you’re specific with your positive feedback, your employees not only know what to do—they now have the motivation to do it to the best of their ability.



As an organizational psychologist, Dan McArthur has worked with owners and top executives in a variety of organizations for 30 years. He is at his best when the obstructions to growth and harmony are not readily observable. He has an amazing ability to quickly build trust with all key players and support them as they move toward better self-management, leadership, healthy team dynamics, and increased productivity. (Learn more about Dan…)


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