A drop of honey or a gallon of vinegar?

Here is some food for thought from Abraham Lincoln:

“It is an old and true maxim that ‘a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men, if you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart; which, say what you will, is the great high road to his reason.”

It never ceases to amaze me that in 2012, authoritative, negative management practices from the early 20th century are still the way things are done in some organizations. Really!

In a recent training program, we had a manager who worked for a company that was very metrics driven. Not a surprise. Most organizations today are judged by “the numbers.” However, in this particular case the way to hit those numbers was to push, cajole, and give constant negative feedback. When the manager first started to use Dale Carnegie’s common-sense principles from How To Win Friends and Influence People to drive results, he was harshly coached: “That is not the way to achieve the numbers!” By the way, this same organization is known for displaying those motivational Successories Posters in its lobby. And also, by the way, its employee turnover ratio is much higher than average for its industry.

In spite of the “coaching” he had received from his boss, our manager stuck with it. He used positive praise when his team began to make just a tiny bit of progress. He would ask questions instead of giving commands. He would never violate anyone’s personal dignity and always let people save face. He would throw down a challenge and give the entire team a fine reputation to live up to. And finally, he used encouragement, encouragement, and more encouragement. After just a few weeks, the team was not only hitting its targets, it was exceeding expectations on a regular basis. When his superior asked our manager what had happened, the manager explained what he had been doing. The coaching comment he received in return: “As long as you keep hitting the numbers, we don’t care how you do it.” Now there’s some positive feedback.

The sad news is that this is not an isolated example. In spite of word-crafted mission statements and powerful company visions, the way to get things done is not always consistent with the pretty poster on the wall. I will say that this trend has gradually gotten better over the last two decades, but it is still mighty present.

Just a few years ago, we worked on a coaching assignment with the supervisor team from a small manufacturing company. While we worked with and coached them to be even more effective managers, delegators, and team builders, they started to see how a positive approach generated positive results. After this initial assignment, we did a follow-up call with ownership to check in on the team’s progress. We were stunned when we heard that the supervisors were worse than they had been before our intervention – not exactly the news you like to hear in our business. After doing some research, we ultimately discovered that once our coaching assignment was completed, the supervisors were again being coached by ownership. And ownership believed that positive coaching was not the way to get things done.

So what’s the message? The message is exactly what our 16th president said at the beginning of this short story. If you want individuals or groups to reach their goals, use that drop of honey. The gallon of vinegar will not work over the long haul.

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