Learning & Development

Reframe Criticism to Become a Better Motivator

Be honest: Are you a good motivator at work? Scott Adams, the author of Reframe Your Brain: The User Interface for Happiness and Success, likely disagrees with your answer. But he gives us a way to rethink—or, as he puts it, reframe—our mindset on motivation. I, too, spend a lot of time thinking about this area and wanted to share some ideas as we rev up the new year.

What We Do Now

Adams writes that employers do it all wrong. Here’s their current drill as he sees it: Our instinct when we see something being done incorrectly is to immediately say, “You’re doing this wrong. Do it this way.” This is fine, Adams notes, if it involves a copilot hitting the wrong button in the cockpit. Otherwise, this approach is counterproductive. No developmental progress is made, and the employee and the company are therefore no better off.

I agree with him and would add the following: Managers focus on a fairly unimportant area and pound it to death. To what end? To show who’s boss? To say something negative and keep people in their place?

Another pointless approach: We dictate that “so and so must get better at XYZ.” Ultimatums feel good to the speaker because they create the illusion of control. But listeners hear a threat that might motivate in the short term but that sucks the life out of them in the long term. I’m sure readers know a few other approaches.

Or, there’s the sandwich technique that’s slightly better but still ineffective. The idea is to place a negative comment between two slices of positive comments. This is an artificial construct and therefore compels the manager to search for examples. And this technique, as with the others, misses the point—to get employees to perform better and help them do so on their own power.

What We Should Be Doing

There are better ways. Here’s how Adams reframes criticism so it’s motivational, not disheartening:

Usual frame: You did this wrong.

Reframe Option 1: Your other work is better.

Reframe Option 2: I think you can top that.

Reframe Option 3: I’m not sure it’s possible to do this better, but let’s find out.

Reframe Option 4: May I show you a shortcut/trick?

Reframe Option 5: Let me show you how some people do it.

I represented a large company that’s focused on meeting quotas, but they never said, “You’re the lowest producer.” Instead, it was always, “You’re the least-best producer.” As I tell my students, words matter, and they matter a lot. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug.

Motivation is about the right mindset and the effective expression of it. Look at the late Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He didn’t say, “You did this wrong.” Instead, he would pick a play a player excelled in, show the video to the player, and ask, “What were you thinking when you executed the play? Why did you decide to move such and such a way?” They would not only deconstruct why the player did well but also discuss how to replicate his performance.

Adams picks up on the Landry frame:

Usual frame: Tell people what they did wrong so they avoid it next time.

Reframe: Tell people what they did well so they’re motivated to continue.

He sums up his approach: “People generally want to do good work. Showing someone a better way is all you need. Don’t ruin it with a judgy attitude. People usually know when they mess up and why. What they need is extra energy and mental strength to get past the mistake.”

And these frames do just that. It’s a great book. Give it a read.

Bottom Line

A perk of professorship is helping students. They become discouraged. They think they’re falling short of others’ expectations. They believe they’re out of place. You know what I tell them? A story involving the golfer Tom Watson. He’s playing in a high-pressure tournament. At a press conference, he’s asked, “Tom, how do you handle the stress out on the course with the leader board looming over everyone? The applause coming from another green?” He gives the reporter an even look and replies calmly, “When I am on the course, it is me versus the course. Period.”

The students’ job—and my role in helping them get there—is to work toward becoming the very best versions of themselves. Same with employees.

Michael P. Maslanka is a professor at the UNT-Dallas College of Law. You can reach him at michael.maslanka@unt-dallas.edu.

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