Assertiveness and Kindness Can Work Together to Create Change

A new manufacturing plant manager, Steve (name changed), stepped into a money-losing operation. Workers were demoralized and hostile to management. Rumors of closing the plant fueled distrust and low performance.
In order to facilitate change, Steve dismissed ineffective assistant managers and made many other unpopular changes. He responded to resistance from employees with firm and assertive opposition. Most days, nothing seemed to go right at the plant. Steve wanted to build morale, but felt he had to be the bad guy in order to turn the firm around.
A 360-degree feedback assessment was the catalyst for change in Steve.  After the assessment, we suggested that he continue to be firm and strict about changes that needed to be made, while at the same time being positive, and respectful. The challenge: “You can be both firm and nice.” He realized that assertiveness and kindness did not have to be mutually exclusive. Then he asked: “What if I can’t find anything to be positive about?”
We decided to try an experiment for one month: a daily dose of positive reinforcement. Every day at 11:00 am Steve would stop what he was doing and walk around the floor with the sole purpose of congratulating others for anything that was going right– anything at all, even if it was minimal.
On the first day of the experiment, Steve praised an operator for wearing his safety gear while operating a dangerous machine. He also smiled at individuals. That was it.
By the third day he was able to point out many things deserving recognition. He was also surprised to notice workers making eye contact with him and even smiling back. By the end of the month, the daily dose of recognition was having a noticeable impact. Steve acknowledged important cost saving actions and record-breaking production quotas.
Here’s the trick, there is no trick. Sincerely focusing on what is right is powerful. Honest recognition creates a buzz for success and tends to produce more of the behaviors that are worth recognition. Despite errors and mistakes, there are always things going right and you’ll never have to fake praise. With real positive reinforcement, trust and cooperation increase and new levels of achievement are made possible.
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