My wife and I are blessed to be raising our grandson, Daven. Daven is almost four and has autism. He is non-verbal but his vocabulary is growing. Our greatest challenge is to teach Daven and prepare him for success in the future. We have enlisted the help of several professionals to assist us in our endeavor. Last week we had our first session at a place called the Sunshine Center. They specialize in children with developmental disorders and delays. My wife Cheryl and I sat in on his first session. We were led to a large room filled with toys, slides and other things that would delight any child. Daven’s eyes lit up as he entered the room moving from one side to the other, discovering everything there was to see. Two members of the Sunshine Center’s staff were there with Daven every step of the way. Encouraging him to explore and play. To Daven, it seemed he had two new playmates but the therapist were very specific in their interactions with him. As Daven brought them a newly discovered container to open and explore, the therapist would ask “Want Help?” and did not open the container until he responded in the affirmative, (“Yea” is one of his favorite words in his vocabulary). They opened the box and said “Take One” as he took one card out of the box. “Good at taking one” as he removed one card from the box. As he reached for another they said, “want more?” and awaited his response. Later they indicated the cards he had and said “Put away”. Daven placed the cards back in the box with the therapist encouraging by saying “Good pick up”. We watched as Daven continued playing with his two new friends with a smile on his face from all of the encouragement and praise he received. It was a great first visit and I am excited to see his progress playing with his new friends.
As the therapist played with Daven, they talked with Cheryl and I about how providing SPECIFIC direction and praise would reinforce the behaviors and learning we seek for Daven. By using very specific verbal praise and direction, Daven would clearly understand what we wanted to and not to do, and would always try to repeat those behaviors to gain the praise and recognition every child seeks. The key is to be very specific. Parents often offer encouragement to children by saying good job. The problem is what job? In the process of performing a simple task like picking things up, the child will walk, bend, grasp, place, talk and several other activities, Good Job? What? Good Job walking around the room? Good Job talking while working? Good Job of grasping items? Good job of putting your things back where you got them! SPECIFIC, task related praise.
As the therapist worked with Daven, I couldn’t help drawing correlations with work. Now, let me say up front before you get defensive, “I’m not saying that employees are to be treated like children”. They are family and there are times I feel like a father to some of them but that is a result of my age more than my position. The correlation is teaching. Teaching is the core of any successful business and we often do it very poorly.
Good team leaders in the workplace always recognize and praise team members. It is one of the leading traits that make them GOOD leaders. The problem is they do not always offer effective praise. Their praise may offer a warm feeling to the team member but it doesn’t teach. “Hey I just wanted to tell you that you do a great job” “THANKS!” It does feel good and the recognition is appreciated BUT what do I do a great job of? Is it because I’m always on time? Is it because I look professional? Is it because I always help my team mates? It’s not specific. “What is it you like that I can continue doing to make you happy?” The same comment offered like this, “Hey I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate the time you spend training and helping your team mates when they fall behind, Nice Job”, is much more effective. The team member gets the same good feeling but they also know exactly why you think they do a good job. They will attempt to continue this behavior, seeking your approval. Everyone wants to do a “good” job. Making the praise specific allows the employee to know exactly what you are approving of. The same goes for setting expectations. “I expect you to always do quality work”. Does that mean work fast and always be on time? Does that mean be meticulous checking EVERY detail even if it makes the work late? Does it mean keeping my work station clean, even if it slows production? Does it mean taking extra time to wipe off and clean every part I touch? What do YOU mean by “QUALITY”? What is it that you really want me to do?
The same goes for constructive feedback. “I’m very disappointed in your work”. Okay…. Why? What are you disappointed about. A comment like this feels personal and de-motivates. “I was disappointed you didn’t complete that job I asked for yesterday. I know you have finished that in a day before, What happened?” Now I know why you are disappointed and you have shown confidence in my work when you said I have accomplished that before. You have also given me the opportunity to explain why instead of just blaming me. I get to respond and I know in the future that getting that job done in a day is something you expect of me. I know what to do to make you happy in the future. Again being specific is the key.
As a leader, you must be very specific defining expectations and then offer constructive feedback and praise just as precise. Teaching is clearly defining the behavior you want and then offering specific feedback on the performance. When you stick to specific details, the criticism isn’t taken personally and the praise is much more fulfilling. Teaching is simply communicating. If you accept the premise that most team members want to do a good job (and if you don’t please go back to 1940 and find an assembly line to terrorize) then specific, behavior related communication is the essential tool in your training. Being specific is the key. Make sure everyone knows exactly what you want and then be specific when you talk to them about their performance. A little extra time choosing your words will pay huge dividends.
Now if you will excuse me, I think I am going to play with Daven.