One of the questions that leaders wrestle with is how to establish a positive work environment.  One way is to establish a workplace that focuses on  the strengths of the organization and its people.  A strengths focused environment is both pleasant and productive, but it is difficult to establish and maintain in our culture of negativity. Difficult, because in our society, it requires a complete paradigm shift. That shift requires that we stop using the measurement of failure as an indicator of success. Success can be measured  by what is achieved.  Here is what I mean.

Do you remember all those red marks that used to adorn your school papers? I am sure you do, because they adorned our papers at every educational level. To top it off, many of our teachers wrote the number that we got wrong at the top of the page. There may have been 89 correct answers, but the paper said -11. That red ink can create a great deal of anxiety and emotional discomfort. I  remember that. It seems that schools are great at measuring our failures and pointing them out.

How much better would you have felt if the marks had been in green or blue, and the paper had said +89? Does it feel better to say that you missed 11 or that you got 89 correct? But we do not do things that way. To do so requires a paradigm shift, one that evaluates success in terms of achievement and does not focus on failure as an indicator. If that shift occurred, we would be encouraging students to learn more, not to miss less.

Our society has a culture of negative evaluation. It is a deficit model, where anything short of  100% is a failure, and winning is everything, at every level. An Olympic medal must be gold, even though there is only one person in the whole world who is better than you if you won silver, and it may be just on today. But our society is conditioned to see success only in gold. The negative evaluation in this case is often implied. People say, “There is nothing wrong with second place”. Really!? If we actually believed that, we would not need to reassure someone that silver is okay. We would simply offer our congratulations.

We ask our 5 year-olds how the T-ball game went. When they say, “It was fun,” we respond with, “Did you win? Did you hit a home run?”.  Having fun apparently is not a measure of success at the T-ball level. And the implication is obvious even to that child; if you did not win, or or at least hit a home run, you failed.

If we are dieting and your goal is to lose 15 pounds, losing 12 is a failure.  Even our language reflects that failure. Having a bowl of ice cream is “breaking” the diet. But you can go right back to eating the way you think you should, because in reality the diet is not broke.

The car salesman wants to sell us his car based on what is wrong with the competition’s model.

Your boss wants to know why you fell 10% short of your sales goal, even though you achieved 90% of it.

I went on a fishing trip this summer, one where I expected to catch a lot of fish. I went through a spell where I could not catch a fish, but my son, 3 feet from me, was hauling them in. I was letting it effect how much I enjoyed the trip. Everything about the trip was magnificent, but I got focused on what was not happening, not what was. In reality, we caught quite a few fish. But the negative evaluation culture was at work.

Please do not take all this wrong. Meeting your goals is a measure of success. The problem is in how we assess success, in how we measure it. Being number one is wonderful, and we all feel great when we know that we are a winner. But it is not everything, and it can limit our possibilities. And most certainly, it is not necessary to feel like a failure if you are number 2, or if you only gain 90% of your goal. Use that for motivation to achieve the other 10% or to be number 1 if you want, but do not allow it to make you feel as if you failed.

The Paradigm Shift that we need is to start evaluating what we do by what we accomplish, not by what we did not.  We need to see strengths, not deficits. We need to use green pens to mark the number of correct answers on that paper. And while we are at it, let us just drop those letter grades. Children do not to be categorized and made to feel less than others by the label we put on them. Have you ever heard anybody say “I was just a C student”? As if that was a failure! We continue that thinking into life. A local charitable organization prints its list of Platinum, Gold, and Silver contributors. It must not be enough just to contribute, you have to be rated. It is the negative evaluation paradigm at work.

You, as a leader or supervisor, have a chance to start to change the paradigm. For example, when Chris, your sales person, falls short of the established sales goals, how are you going to approach the problem? You can evaluate the reasons that the final 10% was not realized.  You can examine the situation and point out how and where Chris made mistakes. You can be apparently supportive by pointing out how Chris can correct his or her shortcomings and reach the established goals. You can offer Chris training or mentoring to correct the identified weaknesses.

Or you can examine how the 90 %was accomplished.  What was it that led to achieving 90% of the goal? You can identify Chris’s strengths and explore how to use these strengths to achieve the other 10% of the sales goal. You can offer Chris opportunities to use and develop his or her strengths, opportunities that may benefit every one, not just Chris. You might develop a professional development plan.

Have you ever written a professional development plan? You know the one I mean. It is the one where you focus on a weakness, the one thing that you want to improve within the time frame of the plan. Would you feel better if the plan was to develop your strengths and find ways to apply them to achieving your goals? Would you be more motivated to work at that goal?

In our diet example, you have a choice of perspectives. You can focus on the fact that you fell three pounds short of your goal because you had to have a bowl of ice cream. You can promise yourself that you will eliminate the ice cream. “Will power!” you say. But you could also look at what you did to lose the twelve pounds and do more of that. It is much easier to continue to do something  that you are doing well than it is to stop doing something “wrong”. It is easier to use your strengths to accomplish something than it is to try to fix your deficits. There is a greater chance of success when you are moving toward a goal with your strengths than there is if you are trying to correct weaknesses.

While I was on the aforementioned fishing trip we ate lunch with several other fisherman. The talk at all three meals was about how poor the fishing was. One group even asked for a refund and left. All that  negative talk infused the negative evaluation culture into our trip. Looking back, it certainly was toxic. The whole experience would have been much better if the talk had been positive.  I was drawn in, and I know better. But that is the power of negativity.

You are in a position to change this culture. You can establish a positive evaluation culture by focusing on strengths. Focus on what people are doing well, and tell them. Show them how to use their strengths. Look at what your supervisor is doing well instead of complaining about what is wrong. Work on developing and using your own strengths. Write company and personal improvement plans that use strengths to accomplish growth and goals. Yes, you must acknowledge those things that are not done as well as is necessary, (or weaknesses, if you insist). Just remember that as long as you see weaknesses first, you are part of the negative evaluation culture.

A Final Thought

A work environment that is has a strengths base will be more productive and the workers will be more engaged. It goes beyond just feeling good.