A few years ago during a phone conversation with a work colleague, we started discussing another employee and found ourselves zeroing in on one aspect of their work that was less than satisfactory without giving energy to the many positive attributes and immense value the person brought to the organization.
Fortunately my colleague hit pause and offered a perspective that I’ve never forgotten. “We need to be careful not to create a narrative about this person that begins to define them.” We both immediately shifted the conversation and spent the remainder of the call discussing many of the positive attributes this colleague had and why and how they brought great value to the organization. I hung up feeling good about our conversation and the person we were speaking about.
I was reminded of this advice (and also of a blog post I wrote awhile back on a similar topic, “When You Think the Best of Others, You Get the Best from Others,”) as I read a recent Harvard Business Review Article titled, “The Benefits of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues.” In it, Jane E. Dutton and Julia Lee discuss the difference we can make in how people feel about themselves and their work by how we talk about them. Their research correlates to four best practices.
- Create positive first impressions.
- Communicate the value that each team member brings to the table.
- Describe your colleagues positively if they are socially undermined.
- Use endings and exits to craft a positive portrait of colleagues.
The article talks about how we all have the ability to “positively narrate” our colleagues from the day they start until the day they leave the firm, and how our endorsement can have a powerful influence on shaping the opinions of others and making the person feel welcomed, valued and noticed.
Dutton and Lee suggest communicating interesting details when introducing a new hire and describing them as someone others would want to get to know. When assembling a project team share stories that affirm the unique strengths each person brings to the group, as well as fun facts about their background and interests.
If you notice someone being put down by others, undermined or struggling to be heard, help build their confidence and reputation among their peers by talking up their qualifications and contributions. And when someone leaves, use their exit to create meaning around their time at the organization by celebrating their successes and reflecting on positive memories. In fact, they state and I firmly believe that we can use positive narration to boost both individual and group morale, bring the best out of others and create a collective sense of purpose that motivates entire teams to perform well.
With the American holiday of Thanksgiving just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to remember not only the many gifts one has in life, but also that recognizing the value others bring to your life is a form of giving thanks. So put this advice to work and find time to speak well of others. To lift them up. To show them you are grateful and you can do that not just through actions, but through your words. Words are powerful. While not something you can physically hold, words are something you can hold onto forever. Words can and do have and make a lasting impression.
If Thanksgiving is the expression of gratitude then I most certainly want to ensure that in addition to all those important to my life outside of work, that the team of people who work alongside me every day know, not only through what happens around first impressions or through endings, but through the middle, their day-to-day contributions, I learn from them daily and that what they do is both noticed and appreciated. As a matter of fact, it is pretty darn amazing.