Crucial Confrontations was written to address the question of how we confront and address a gap in our expectations. Let s take a look at the other potential outcome we haven t explored yet: The other person has performed up to expectations or even better. This is your chance to express sincere praise.
Praise plays an important role in problem solving. Those who are best at holding crucial confrontations make good use of praise between confrontations. When people see them coming, they already feel respected and valued. They assume that the problem solver has their best interest in mind because he or she consistently recognizes when things are going well and talks about those accomplishments openly and frequently. When given sincerely and often, praise provides a reserve of respect one can draw from when it s time to talk about a failed promise.
Praise is also a subject that receives attention about twice a year when human resource folks conduct satisfaction surveys. According to the authors research, the number-one employee complaint year in and year out always comes down to the same issue: not being recognized for a job well done. It seems that most of us are missing opportunities to create a climate of mutual respect. To help reverse this trend, let s look at some thoughts about praise that are a bit counterintuitive.
Perhaps the biggest reason we don t mete out praise very often is that we miss the chances to do so. We don t see the positive. For example, when your kids aren t fighting, you don t notice it. When your direct reports are plugging along day in and day out and aren t causing problems, who could notice that? In fact, Sherlock Holmes once solved a crime because he alone observed that a dog wasn t barking. You have to be a fictional genius to notice the absence of noise. The same thing is true with problems. And if you don t notice the lack of problems ( things gone right ), you certainly won t praise people.
The fact that the praise statistics never get better no matter how much we study them, talk about them, and lament their embarrassing consistency is a function of the fact that our society suffers from obscured vision ”we can only see the bad. In the leadership literature this is called management by exception: Pay attention to and work on things gone wrong. Within a family it s called survival: Put out the fire before it consumes the house. Every year people complain that they aren t recognized for their good performance because every year they are so blinded by problems that they don t notice things gone right.
Of course, we do notice record-breaking accomplishments. Hit new numbers or finish a huge task, and the world takes notice. But honoring the humongous or the exceptional is expected. It doesn t feel like genuine praise; it feels like getting your due. Celebrating mammoth accomplishments will never satisfy an individual s desire for more praise.
To put this problem in perspective, Mark Twain once suggested that he could live for two months on a good compliment, and he was an American hero during his lifetime. How much more do everyday heroes such as file clerks, code writers, and prison guards long for a simple word of thanks? And what will it take to be able to first see and then celebrate achievements other than record-breaking performances ?
The psychological explanation for our inability to see things gone right is incorporated in figure-ground theory. The human perceptual system simplifies any visual array into a figure that we look at and a ground that is everything else that makes up the background. In corporate and family life, problems are the figure and everything else is the ground.
M. C. Escher made a better living than most of his contemporaries by painting works that confused figure and ground. First you see the black birds, and then you squint your eyes just so and see the white birds. We would all make life better if we ensured that certain aspects of human behavior were more noticeable and thus noticed, turning routine success into something that first catches our eye and then gets attention.
As in squinting at an Escher painting, we must find ways to reverse what has historically been background and turn it into the foreground, the focus of our attention and the object of our good words. What would it be like if our employees , loved ones, and children felt that we always noticed their hard efforts and good works? What would it be like if our own companies and families were known as places where good deeds were rewarded instead of punished?
To achieve this monumental feat, to turn around more than a half century of low praise scores, requires but three things: commitment, a change in standards, and simple cues.
An illustration might help. Let s take our lead from Donald Petersen, former chairman of Ford Motor Company. Every day he sat down at a massive desk in an office large enough to shoot hoops in and handwrote short, sincere, positive messages to people he worked with. He argued, The most important ten minutes of your day are those you spend doing something to boost the people you work with. 
Here was the chairman of one of the largest companies in the world, a man who easily could have spent all his time doing long- term planning and high-level thinking, and he believed that his most important job was to offer sincere appreciation to those around him. That s the change in belief we re suggesting. Until we buy into the notion that expressing honest appreciation as a leader, friend, and parent is one of our most important jobs, we re not likely to do much to overcome the mental mechanisms and years of habit that keep us focused on problems.
The second feature of what Mr. Petersen did is also worth noting. He sent simple handwritten notes. If you talk to anyone who received one, you re likely to learn that the notes often commented on modest accomplishments. He didn t thank people only for home runs; he thanked them for cheering from the bench or quietly offering support. Our current standards for recognition contain two enormous barriers. First, the feat must be monumental. Second, the reward must match; it should be expensive and time-consuming . Break the habit. Look for and then praise small things. Most of us are already celebrating the big things.
Husbands often have a hard time getting this point. When all a wife really wants is a kind word, a gentle touch, or a sincere smile, the husband misses these opportunities for months on end and then one day ponies up with a new car. Or, worse , he gives her something he thinks is terrific but she doesn t. The prize for this version of insensitivity goes to a fellow who gave his wife a manhole cover for Valentine s Day because it had her initials pressed into it (CON for City of Newark ). Wow, my very own manhole cover/ jewelry ! Does it come with a chain?
The third element is a bit harder to notice. The chairman of Ford sat down every day and wrote notes. By doing it every day, he didn t have to be reminded. Even if we sincerely want to reward accomplishments and are willing to look for the little things, we often forget. Problems are the field, and solutions are the ground. To reverse this habit, schedule time to do nothing but focus on things gone right. Set aside a time every day to walk around and look for elements that you can praise. Then do it. Sit down at your computer, bring up the e-mail address of a friend or colleague, and write a thoughtful note. Keep it short and sincere. With time and practice, you ll start noticing things gone right more naturally.
If we re paying attention to small accomplishments and then offering up thanks or perhaps a note or maybe a tiny memento, aren t we being too low-key and cheap? Consider the following story: Every year one of the authors receives a birthday card with a handwritten message from an old friend. He hasn t seen this friend in over a decade , yet every year a card shows up in his mailbox. It s nice. It s the only card other than ones from family members he ever receives, and it always contains a thoughtful personalized note. Sometimes the author picks up the phone and calls his old friend. Sometimes he fires off a thank-you e-mail. But mostly he just reads the card, thinks of the pleasant friendship, and smiles the smile of a person being appreciated. Small, heartfelt moments of appreciation never wear thin.
Surely the person who sends the card has a reminder on his calendar. That s the cue. Surely he cares about being pleasant and thoughtful. That s the commitment. And surely he realizes that just having a birthday is cause enough for a thoughtful word. That s the change in standards.
This notion also runs counter to what typically happens in organizations. The whole idea behind every award ceremony ever devised is to allow people to bask in the admiration of their friends and peers. That is a good thing. Research reveals, however, that when this is handled poorly, many people feel resentment toward the people who are being honored. Why wasn t I picked? is a common question. When you can, celebrate team successes as a team and private successes in private.
This runs counter to what typically happens. Teams and individuals alike are often rewarded for breaking records. The danger is that in doing this people also break all kinds of rules, regulations, and policies just to hit the higher numbers. Sometimes they merely cook the books. This is not to suggest that numbers don t matter but to highlight the importance of rewarding individuals who stick to effective processes.
For example, a group of waitresses at a Matsushita plant in Tokyo received the Presidential Gold Medal for saving money on the tea they served in the company cafeteria.  The waitresses noted who typically sat where and how much tea they consumed and then poured the appropriate amount at each table. They didn t save the most money ”not by a long shot ”but earned the award because they followed the process better than others did.
We ve nibbled at this issue; now let s take a big bite out of it. Most of the recognition handed out in companies is structured. We hold monthly awards ceremonies; we have annual banquets.
When these events become the only venue for honoring our friends and colleagues, people become cynical . Recognition feels obligatory and insincere. Praise feels mechanical and cold. Simple, sincere, and individualized handwritten notes are replaced by fancy etched plaques that are written once, carved by machines, and applied equally to everyone.
Supplement your formal celebrations with ten times as many informal ones. Write personal notes, stop people in the hall, drop off a cookie or flower, and make thank you your mantra. Watch for things gone right and then spontaneously and sincerely offer up your thanks and praise. Tell people what they did and why it s worth noting and then end with a simple Thank you.
Make recognition such an informal, spontaneous , important, and common part of your corporate and family culture that formal celebrations will feel heartfelt rather than mechanical and obligatory. Make praise such a common part of your personal style that when you do enter into a crucial confrontation, you ll have built a safe, trusting, and respectful relationship. Balance confrontations with confirmations .
 Fred Bauer. The Power of a Note. In Heart at Work: Stories and Strategies for Building Self-Esteem and Reawakening the Soul at Work, compiled by Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 190 “194.
 Masaaki Imai, Kaizen: The Key to Japan s Competitive Success (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986), 19 “20, 107.