Recognizing people is one the most important parts of being a leader, and it’s also one of my favorite parts. Praising and complimenting others has always come naturally to me, and I love making people feel good about themselves. But the first time I remember my positive words really making an impact on someone was soon after I started a cleaning company when I was in college.
It was in the middle of what we call “move-out season,” which takes place in the dead of summer. I was leading a large team at an apartment complex, where we were tasked with cleaning about 100 units that day. My company is based in Gainesville, Florida, so as you can imagine, it’s Really. Freaking. Hot. Add that to cleaning empty apartments where people have lived for years—sometimes without cleaning them at all—and you’ve got a recipe for misery. To get my team through the move-out season, it takes a lot of encouragement.
I was making my rounds to each apartment, delivering water to teams and thanking them for working so hard. In one of the units I visited, two students were working together in a kitchen.
I greeted them and handed them each a water bottle. Then I consulted my list and realized there should be another person in the apartment.
“Isn’t there someone else with you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” one of the students said. “He’s… down that way, cleaning one of the bathrooms.”
The way she said it made me think something was up, so I set off down the hallway. When I reached the bathroom, I looked through a doorway at Bill, who was cleaning a toilet the slowest I’d ever seen anyone clean anything in my life. He was standing hunched over, his toilet brush dangling from his hand, barely moving.
“Bill! How are you doing?” I asked cheerfully, hoping it might startle him into action.
No such luck. When he looked up at me, he was pale. He was sweating and had big bags under his eyes like he hadn’t slept in days. To my horror, I noticed a dead roach sitting on his sneaker. He didn’t even see it. He looked so utterly exhausted that I was surprised he was still standing—and that he hadn’t quit yet.
Not knowing what else to do, I looked at the other two students who had wandered over to us.
“Guys,” I whispered, hoping Bill wouldn’t hear me. “What should we do?”
They looked at one another, then back at me, and shrugged.
We needed Bill. We were in the middle of a do-or-die day with a big deadline fast approaching; I had to do something to motivate him.
“Man, Bill!” I shouted, not sure what I was going to say next. “I have never seen anyone clean a toilet as well as you!” (Faster, yes. But he at least seemed to be cleaning it thoroughly).
Caught off-guard, Bill looked up and lazily half-smiled.
I looked at the other two students, raising my eyebrows and silently urging them to follow my lead.
“Oh! Um, yeah, Bill! Wow!” one piped up, catching on. “Where did you learn how to clean toilets?”
“Seriously, Bill, you’re the man!” the other chimed in.
Bill was slowly perking up. He’d even cracked a grin.
“Bill for president!” one of them shouted. Probably a little overkill, but Bill loved it. He started standing up a little straighter, the color returned to his face, and he was smiling like he had just come back from a five-day cruise to the Bahamas. He still didn’t notice the roach on his sneaker, but he started pumping his toilet brush in the air as the rest of us chanted, “Bill! Bill! Bill!”
As I left that apartment, I spotted Bill, grin still in place, scrubbing that toilet with gusto—and probably a little more than the job required. When I checked in with him and his team later that day, he was still going strong. I realized I was smiling, too. It felt so good to see that change in Bill and realizing that the little bit of cheerleading his teammates and I did had made such a huge difference.
People thrive on positive recognition, and it’s up to leaders to provide it. Encouraging people makes them want to work harder and do better, so really, it’s a win-win: You feel good for making others feel good, and in turn, they want to continue doing things that earn them good feedback.
But there’s a sweet spot for giving recognition. If it’s given too often, it becomes meaningless. And if it’s not given often enough, it’s not nearly as effective. Studies show that to have the biggest impact, the ratio of positive to negative feedback should be 5 to 1. That means someone needs to get positive recognition five times as often as they get negative or critical feedback.
So, the next time you want to motivate your members, try a little cheerleading. And it doesn’t have to happen in an awards ceremony or even in front of a crowd: Giving out awards is great, but it’s the everyday recognition that makes a difference.
Learn more about speaker Kristen Hadeed, check out campuspeak.com/hadeed.