A pat on the back

Praise from a manager can encourage safe behaviour in the workplace. BRETT SOLOMON takes a look at the science that backs this up

An unassuming man was playing his violin outside a metro station in Washington DC, in the United States (US). The majority of unsuspecting commuters ignored the fiddler as they walked past to catch their trains. Some gave a few dollars in an attempt to help out. A handful stopped to listen and enjoy his music, but, for the large part, he was dismissed as an ordinary busker.

After 45 minutes he collected a measly US$ 32,17 (R477,92) – excluding US$ 20 (R297,12) from one bystander who recognised him. When he finished and walked away, there was silence. No one thanked him or applauded his talent. Those passing by were not aware that the Stradivarius violin being played was bought for US$ 3,5 million (R51 million).

The violist, Joshua Bell, is recognised as one of the best in the world. Only three days earlier, he had played the same repertoire to a sold-out theatre in Boston, US. The average ticket cost US$ 100 (R1 485,65). The concert ended with a roaring standing ovation.

At work, we interact with people every day. Do we recognise them, or walk by and dismiss their potential or contribution?

Many experiments have proved the impact we can have on other people. Harvard Professor Robert Rosenthal facilitated one of the more popular ones. He told the teachers at an elementary school in San Francisco, US, that the learners would complete a test that could predict which of them had exceptional academic potential.

After the learners took a regular standardised IQ test, he randomly chose a few children from each class. Based on this random selection, Rosenthal revealed to the teachers which learners were supposedly on the verge of an extraordinary burst in their intelligence and potential. At the end of the year, they rewrote the IQ test.

The youths identified with remarkable academic aptitude did significantly better than their fellow learners. What is striking about this experiment is that at no time were the budding learners told about the predictions. Their grades changed in sync with the shift in expectations from their teachers.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon. The new belief the teachers had about the selected so-called outstanding learners transformed how they engaged with them.

Rosenthal noticed how these learners started to receive regular attention, were given an extended time to answer questions and offered extra support and encouragement. He also saw slight adjustments in the teacher’s body language with signals of approval through nodding and smiling.

American astronomer Carl Sagan once said: “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often, they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” This is not limited to children, it also applies to adults.

Rosenthal stated: “The bottom line is that if we expect certain behaviours from people, we treat them differently – and that treatment is likely to affect their behaviour.” This dynamic is frequently referred to as the Pygmalion effect. How we perceive ourselves and our abilities, what we believe, think and act, and our degree of success, can all be influenced by others.

This is especially true of people we respect and hold in high regard. Leaders have immense sway over their people. This might be at a subconscious level. If a leader sees someone as a top performer, it alters how they will relate to that person. For example, they will extend more trust, express greater confidence in their competence and give them additional responsibilities.

These subtle differences can bolster an employee’s functioning. Just as with the teachers, the change usually needs to start with the manager. A renewed outlook flows into empowering interactions. By raising their expectations, it is possible for leaders to nudge others towards improved work and commitment to safety.

Setting high safety standards coupled with an unwavering belief that zero harm is possible, can win half the battle. Perhaps the change managers so desperately want to see in their people needs to start with them.   

It begs the questions: how much of what employees do reflects the manager’s view of them? How many workers are passionate about delivering high-quality work and doing it safely as a direct result of the behaviour of their managers? On the other hand, is it possible that managers are responsible for much of the below-par work being produced and the many short cuts that are being taken?

There are many stories of a dramatic turnaround after a leader started to focus on what was going right. I have heard managers say: “I pay my people a salary, why do I need to thank them for doing their job?” Logically they shouldn’t need to, yet, a large part of what makes us human is our feelings.

I have yet to hear of anyone responding to praise with “I will never do that again”.   Acknowledgement of extra effort evokes a desire to do it again.

When people put in extra effort and it goes unnoticed, it is not uncommon for them to say: “Why should I bother?” I have never encountered a person who resigned for receiving too much praise. On the other hand, numerous hardcore miners and construction workers have admitted that a mere “thank you” would be so encouraging and would go a long way.

I had a colleague who regularly told us to “put a ten on everyone’s head”. What number are you placing on your people’s heads?

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