Catch People Doing Something Right

Several years ago I needed to perform a complicated banking transaction on a certain day but wasn’t going to be able to arrive during lobby hours. Having worked as a bank teller back in the day, I knew it would probably prove an impossible request. But to my surprise the bank informed me it would be no problem and they would have an envelope waiting for me in the drive-through.

Another time I was responsible for opening up a restaurant in the morning. When I turned on the lights, I couldn’t believe how shiny everything looked. The place was cleaner than I had ever seen it before. I had to ask around to see who had gone above and beyond.

Yet another time, I needed some repairs done to my car but was on a tight schedule. The mechanic drove me home after I dropped off my car, then called to update me, took my payment over the phone and left my car where I could pick it up at my leisure when my schedule allowed.

Most people are used to getting caught – but it’s usually for doing something wrong. In fact, we’ve become so used to low standards and poor customer experiences that we often expect it. But in each of these cases I shared, the culprit hadn’t done anything wrong, they had done something above and beyond.

What do you do when that happens?


Let me answer that question for you. You catch people doing something right. Here’s why it’s so important.

It Changes Our Perspective

There’s an old adage that states, “we usually find what we’re looking for.” If you’ve ever worked for a boss who managed to find fault in every little job you’ve done, you know how demoralizing it can be. But the damage is the worst for the person finding fault. Not only do we lose influence and fail to gain the willing cooperation of others over time, we become increasingly negative and difficult to work with. Since leaders must be optimists, catching people doing something right is the best place to start.

Does this mean lowering our standards for excellence? Of course not. It means being on the lookout for examples of it.

It Reinforces the Behavior

There’s another principle at play that what gets rewarded gets repeated. It works with animals, it works with children and it works with adults too. Of course recognition isn’t the only reward you should give for all circumstances, but it’s probably the best place to start.

Keep in mind that this only works if we’re sincere! People can smell manipulation from a mile away.

It Builds a More Positive Environment

One of the big mistakes we can make as leaders is to assume we know what motivates other people. I’ve made that mistake many times. But recognition in some form or fashion almost always works. And when it becomes normalized behavior, it can catch on quickly. Imagine a workplace where everyone was quick to accentuate the positive. It’s hard to be negative when you receive positive reinforcement.

It Increases Collaboration

Fear of negative consequences is one of the biggest reasons for organization silos. People are afraid of looking dumb or not knowing the “right” answer, so they guard information instead of sharing it with others. This snowballs into more mistakes and distrust without the collaboration that helps clarify things up front.

When people get caught for doing something right, it’s easier to admit when they need help.

It’s a Ton of Fun!

Some of the stories that touch us the most are simple instance of someone making another’s day. When was the last time you felt the satisfaction of making someone’s day? We can all do this by pointing out what they are doing right.

In each of the stories I shared, the “catch” was pretty obvious. The challenge is to recognize and acknowledge behaviors that are not so easy to spot: the employee who never shows up late, handled a difficult customer with grace or developed a presentation that make her boss look like a rock star. But with a little bit of practice,

So… How Do I Get Started?

I’m glad you stuck around long enough to ask. Here’s the method Ken Blanchard recommends in his book Whale Done!. He calls it “the whale done response.”

  • Praise people immediately
  • Be specific about what they did right – or almost right
  • Share your positive feelings about what they did
  • Encourage them to keep up the good work

And there you have it – how to catch people doing something right.

Who can you catch today?

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.