Accentuate the Positive

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It’s said that the music of your teens stays with you forever. If you were to take a look through my playlist, you’d certainly see that is true. It’s far more Beatles than Beyoncé.

I was fortunate to grow up through a period of enormous musical change and growth. I was born in the 1950s, as Frank Sinatra gave way to Elvis Presley. As a kid in the 60’s I watched as the Beatles repeatedly reinvented popular music. And living near Detroit, I delighted in the rise of Motown and its many breakout stars.

By the time I was in high school in the early 1970s, popular music had more variety than ever. From America and Black Sabbath, to the Who and ZZ Top, there seemed to be an infinite variety, from one end of the alphabet to the other. And I loved a broad spectrum of music from many genres, including jazz, and even classical. I spent hours listening on headphones at volumes that probably go a long way to explaining the incessant ringing, or tinnitus, I suffer now as a late stage adult.

But it was one small relatively unknown group that caught my ear in late 1972, and I find I listen to one of their albums often, even today nearly fifty years later. Theirs was an upbeat style of music that I found infectious and that always leaves me with a smile on my face.

One particular song of theirs resonates very well when I think about leading teams of smart people. Especially around performance review time. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this podcast, we’ll take a look at how people meet the challenge of managing smart people in this Brainpower Age. Each episode, we’ll explore everyday problems and provide practical tools you can use to be a better and smarter leader.

This is the second of two episodes looking at the part of management that everyone seems to hate: performance reviews. In this episode we’ll explore what goes into great employee feedback. This is Episode Five: Accentuate the Positive.

As a junior in high school I, like many, had not yet found my passion. Despite playing in the state hockey finals a couple of years before, I hadn’t even made my school’s ultra-competitive junior varsity team. And I found I wasn’t fond of ending up on my back in the mud of the football field.

I had dabbled with the school’s computer. It was Digital PDP-8s, the size of a refrigerator with about 1000th the power of today’s Apple Watch. The punched paper tape used to program it was cumbersome to use, and I had tired of printing out “Hello World”. It wasn’t until a couple of years, and some amazing professors, later that I would realize how much computers spoke to me.

But in high school, I loved the theater. Not as an actor, but behind the scenes, especially the lighting crew. There was something about clamoring about on the ladder, fiddling with the electrics, balancing the colors, and the magic of a dark stage coming to light. It also helped that the theater director, Tim Devlin, was a warm and kind mentor.

One cold and dark fall Saturday afternoon I was tasked, as the resident lighting geek, with helping a band set up for a dance. They were NRBQ, the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, a band with mostly regional recognition. They had just released their second album, and it was a bit special for them to play at our little school.

From their very first notes, I was in love. It was fun, upbeat music that had me grinning from ear to ear. They played rock and roll mixed with R&B, and novelty tunes about eating at Howard Johnsons and one entitled “Who Put the Garlic in the Glue”. They featured none of the wailing guitars or angst-filled lyrics of the period. It was so uplifting for a kid often struggling to see the bright side of things.

One song in particular just lit me up. It was a cover of an old song by Harold Arlen with lyrics by the great Johnny Mercer. It was written in 1944, as the country was in the depths of World War II. It’s Accentuate the Positive, and NRBQ’s interpretation during the Vietnam war, is just wonderful.

The joy of that song still makes me smile even today. Mostly because you can almost see Terry Adams smiling as he sings it.

I know it seems a stretch to go from an almost frivolous song to the complex problem of evaluating the performance of the hard-working people on your team. But the underlying message is very compelling. If you want to build great teams, don’t dwell on the negative, accentuate the positive.

We all do it anyway, somewhat instinctively. As I noted in the last episode a very common way to give negative feedback is to envelope it in a more positive light. My example was clear:

That was great, Sally, I really like the way you made sure everyone got a chance to weigh in, and also how you drove it to some clearly defined action items. Both of us know you could have handled Ed taking the conversation off the rails better, and that’s something you need to work on. But overall, I think that went great. Thanks.

That is what is colloquially known as a s*** sandwich. I wrapped the negative feedback in an overall positive review of her performance. This can be a great way to deliver bad news, especially for people – like me – who generally avoid conflict.

As I noted, we all do this, at work, at home, at school. Wrapping up bad news in a way that makes it more palatable.

This sandwich approach does require some care, however. You have to be genuine and honest in all aspects of the feedback.

Some people err by making the positive aspects almost cartoonishly good, over the top, even breathless. If the good news is fake or exaggerated, the entire commentary can be rendered useless. The sandwich becomes essentially, all bun and no meat, with a Cinnabon for the bread. The constructive negative feedback is all but lost to the hyperbole.

Similarly, if the bad news is over the top, the softening effects of the good news is lost as well. You’ve created the Katz Deli sandwich – all meat, almost no bread. The receiver of this feedback ends up feeling that they failed entirely, or even that you hate them.

The lesson is that a feedback sandwich, like a real sandwich, needs to be balanced – true and honest feedback scaled appropriately. Used as such, it can be a great way to execute the kind of frequent, micro-sized performance reviews I promoted in the last episode.

When it comes to the full-scale annual performance review, however, far too many forget to accentuate the positive. And far from a building up a nourishing sandwich, most end up making a mess of it.

I’ve given, received, and read countless performance reviews. Virtually every one of them, for good and poor performers alike, follows a similar pattern. They begin with some form of praise for the things that went well, perhaps tempered with a few modest missteps. Then they home in on some “area of growth” needed by the employee. The rest of the review, it seems, is spent on plumbing the depths of this issue, and crafting an elaborate plan for the future to remedy this shortcoming.

It’s the open-faced sandwich of the feedback world. A thin slice of compliments on the plate, piled high with negative feedback, then slathered with the gravy of good intentions. In the end, the uplifting bread on the bottom is smothered, and no one mistakes this meal for fine dining.

It helps to step back and think about the goal of the performance review. What’s the purpose of the exercise?

In a very few cases, the forgone conclusion of the review is a serious job action, like termination. The review is simply the last phase of that process.

But for virtually every other review, the most important goal is not to document the past, but rather to set the stage for the future. To set the employee off on a new year of great contributions, and to make the work of the employee more impactful for the entire organization.

Sure, some portion of the review is, as the name suggests, spent reviewing what has happened. But if that’s the entire focus, the opportunity is lost.

This is especially true for Brainpower workers. Because their work is so hard to measure, a performance review for these workers is almost entirely subjective. And they universally dread the outcome. Most are smart enough to understand what they need to work on, especially if you’ve been diligent in providing the micro-sized feedback that they need, all year long. So, spending this precious time rehashing the past is largely a waste of time. Time better spent on focusing on what’s ahead.

Worse, the “areas of growth”, kind of performance review leaves them confused about their priorities. Should I be working on fixing my faults, or doing my best work? Given all the emphasis that tends to get placed on the repair process, who can blame them?

The saddest part, though, of this kind of review is that it leaves the employee feeling downtrodden. It can take weeks for them to regain momentum. It’s not uncommon to spend several follow-on meetings trying to rebalance them and encourage them not to obsess on the negative. Perhaps even telling them “not to worry”. Then next year, the same “area of growth” shows up again, and the song repeats. I know this refrain well. I’ve lived it, on both sides.

Management 101 says that one of the most important jobs for a leader is to know their team. To recognize the possibilities for each member and to leverage them in the best possible way.

But the way too many managers approach this is to evaluate what each member of their team is good at, and what they’re not. To identify the things they do poorly and help them work on those. This is a far too negative approach.

It’s human nature to perform poorly at things you don’t like to do. Similarly, most people don’t like to do things they’re bad at. It’s a cycle of negativity that becomes very hard to overcome.

But that’s what too many leaders, and most performance reviews, focus on. Fixing what’s broken.

Let’s take an example. Say you lead a team of architects and you’re blessed with a lot of talented people. Henry is one of them, a thoughtful designer who can be counted on to come up with creative ways to solve your clients’ problems. But he is terrible in client meetings. He gets nervous and clumsy. He has a hard time expressing his ideas, stumbles over details, and even occasionally says things that are just flat wrong. Things you have to embarrassingly correct in front of the client. Afterward, Henry always knows he messed up, is deeply apologetic, and is disappointed in himself.

At performance review time, you are frank with him.

Henry, you are a very good designer, a solid B, even a B+ architect. But we both know that your work with clients is a real problem. There, I’d have to give you a C-, even a D. You really need to work on this. So, let’s devise a plan for that. We’ll have you work with Mary who’s great with clients, we’ll get you some public speaking training, you and I will do mock client sessions, and we’ll really work on this.

No. Stop right there. The odds are that Henry hates working with clients. That’s probably one of the main reasons he’s terrible at it. He dreads every client meeting, and his fear just amplifies the problem. Also, it’s almost certain that no matter how much you work on this, he’ll never be really good at it. You might turn a D into a C, heck maybe even a B-. But he’ll never be an A at working with clients.

But he could be an A designer. He loves it, and he’s objectively pretty good at it. If you both devoted the same level of energy into his design skills, you’d have something special. Send him to conferences or other learning opportunities, encourage him to take risks, and reward him when his design skills improve.

And send Mary to meet with the clients. You’ve already admitted she’s great at it, let her do what she does best as well. She also probably doesn’t like the idea of having to teach Henry how to be better with clients. Just tell Henry to make sure Mary knows the details of his designs, but that he’s free to skip the client meetings.

In parallel, you have to be certain that your culture is sending a similar message. You have to be careful to recognize and celebrate the specialists for their work. Too often we laude the “jacks of all trades” who seemingly do everything right. For this “accentuate the positive” approach to work, the specialists have to feel valued as well. Otherwise, Henry will naturally resist your push to specialize, because he’ll feel organizational pressure to be good at everything.

There are, of course, caveats. Sometimes things do genuinely need to be fixed. For example, if Henry is, say, cursing out the few clients he does interact with, then that needs to be corrected. But that’s just turning an F into a D. And fortunately, that type of thing is rare.

In the end, this “accentuate the positive” approach makes pretty much everyone happier. You get Henry focused on what he does best. He enters the new year with renewed vigor for the part of the job he does well. He’s excited about honing his design skills. He could very well end up being a standout in his field. The organization gets an A performer, who loves their work. Mary’s probably happier too, she gets recognized for her good work with clients. And, you as the manager make progress on improving your organization, but in a positive way. Precious little time is spent on “fixing things”. You and the team just continuously improve.

Most organizations would love to have superstar A level people in every possible role. Yet that seems like an unattainable goal. The key to getting there is in your perspective. You need to realize that you probably have plenty of A’s on your team. They’re just wrapped up in what appear to be C’s. The key to unlocking them is to “accentuate the positive”.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, That’s Or find me on social media as theCLWill.

I encourage you to see NRBQ live and to buy their music. Find out more at their website or on their Facebook page. Just search for NRBQ.

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I also hope you’ll participate. Do you have questions about managing people? Do you work in an industry that faces these kinds of challenges? Are you, or do you know, someone I should be interviewing? Let me know. Each episode has a page on my web site, and comments are welcome. Or just send me an email to I can’t promise I’ll answer or interview everyone, but I read every email I get.

That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll begin a multi-part look at hiring brainpower workers. The first episode is called “Stop Searching”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.