What’s the best way to help employees improve?

It’s been a hotly debated area for decades. And whilst if you are learning new specific skills, requiring factual knowledge and application, instruction is needed, in other cases, it might be that focusing too much on detailed critical feedback is actually going to be counter-productive.

A new book published by the Harvard Business Review Press and written by Marcus Buckingham, of the ADP Research institute and Ashley Goodall, president of leadership at Cisco Systems, called Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, argues that focusing on the positives will reap the highest benefits.

How we learn: sympathetic and parasympathetic

At the core of their research are new insights into how we learn. Learning, it seems, is less a function of adding something new than it is of recognising, reinforcing and refining what is already there. Getting attention about our strengths reinforces and improves learning, whereas attention on our weaknesses can diminish it. This is because our brains can respond to critical feedback as a threat – activating the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or fight response, which can mute other parts of our brain, and limiting our ability to learn.

Focusing on the positives, on our strengths, can have the opposite effect, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating neurogenesis (ie the growth of new neurons)…and cognitive and perceptual openness.

In short, we are in a much better place to learn.

What this mean in practice? How to you focus on the positives in the day to day. Buckingam and Goodall suggest some useful approaches in the table below.

Focus on outcomes

The other is look for outcomes. When you see a staff member achieve something, delight a client for example, turn that into a teaching moment. Stop and focus on why it was that that situation turned out so well, so that the employee can focus on replicating it again and again.