Bringing Out the Best in Others! 

By: Thomas K. Connellan, Ph.D



Whether you are a manager, a parent, a coach or a teacher, we are all faced with a common challenge: getting someone to perform better or at least differently.

The same goes for us. We all want to do better, don’t we? Thomas K. Connellan has conducted a considerable amount of research into this topic and through this study has derived a methodology that we can all apply in any of the above situations to help our teams improve and feel better about it. Join us for the next ten minutes to find out how.

Lesson 1: Greatness 101

How do we bring out the best in people? How can we tap into their full potential? We are not looking for greatness here (not everyone can be great) what we want is for our teams to do better than they are. Nevertheless, we can learn from the great. Connellan’s studies identified an interesting theme: when you look at the best performers, study after study identified a high number of firstborns within the best performers.

Why? It turns out that parents are unconsciously fantastic at raising their firstborn. It’s not the fact of being born first, what matters is environment and focus. Three factors stood out:

Expectations: People have more positive expectations of firstborns. They’re going to be president, they’re going to be great sportsmen, or successful in business.

Responsibility: Firstborns are given more responsibility at an earlier age. They look after younger brothers and sisters, they are given team leader responsibility within a group of children taking care of money, cell phones and enforcing rules.

Feedback: Firstborns get more feedback. They get more attention from parents, relatives and family friends. They get more pictures taken of them. Parents spend more time teaching them to walk and talk.

It’s from this basis that Connellan built his model. His studies prove to be equally relevant to performance in business. He suggests the approach is straightforward: If we are a leader we need to consciously and appropriately believe in people, hold them accountable and give them a supportive environment. Most people do some of each of the three activities, but perhaps not in a coordinated way. For example, some people overdo accountability but fall short on supportive feedback. The challenge is getting the balance right. Let’s look more into each of the factors to see what can be done.

Lesson 2: Positive Expectations

Why positive? Let’s be honest. We all set high expectations of ourselves and others. Unfortunately in doing so, we set ourselves up for a fall. Setting the bar high means we are forever comparing ourselves (or others) to the potentially unattainable. Connellen suggests an alternative. We should consider positive expectations. Positive expectations means there is a belief in success and the presence of that belief encourages attainment. Furthermore, this belief can be communicated as a vehicle for encouragement and communicated in all ways.

All our messages, whether they are spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious must align. While we are often not aware of it, we often tell others what we expect of them simply by eye contact and body language. You must have had at some point in your life that castigating glance from an unhappy partner or colleague. These are the signs we must be aware of giving. We must use non-verbal communication positively and with the underlying belief of “can do”.

One other point raised by Connellan is the fact that expectations must begin from current reality. There is no point setting pie-in-the-sky targets that are too difficult to achieve and are too far from the current situation. What is happening now is our baseline. What we want our teams to do must be available on a progressive route, perhaps challenging, but an attainable path from the current status quo.

If we communicate our expectation of people clearly and consistently through words, tone of voice, body language and setting, people will respond.

Lesson 3: Realistic Accountability

Connellan believes accountability is a key issue. Lack of accountability paves the way to mediocrity. Although many people may play a role in getting to the final result, someone has to be ultimately accountable. No passing the buck. It’s all up to you. Connellan gives us four steps to make accountability work:

Step 1: Establish accountability.
We need to assign accountability without blame. What is meant here is the need to develop positivity. Accountability without blame encourages people to try that bit harder, to take qualified risks. Accountability with blame means staff not putting their heads above the parapet and attainment of just the bare minimum.

Step 2: Set Goals.
We need to set clear cut goals and get everyone involved. Goals help with two things. They create a proactive mindset and create a focus. The combination of these is important. Without focus too many people get stuck in an activity rut doing things that may not be relevant. Without focus, people get caught up in planning and analysis – never moving forward. Goals also need support. Setting a task for someone beyond their current ability can be a challenge. The more support built into the system, the faster you can grow people.

Step 3: We need to develop Action Plans.
Goals are never reached by accident. They are achieved by design. Connellan calls action plans the insurance that you’ll reach your goals. Action plans do not need to be cast in stone however. With a clear definition of our goal, we can tell whether we are progressing and if not, take on a different path. A good example of this in practice is the After Action Review. Used in the military, these are used after every identifiable event and asks four simple questions: What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? What makes up for the difference? How can we close the gaps? By taking the principle of AAR’s, our plans can be aligned to goals.

Step 4: Engage.
The more people are engaged in setting goals, developing plans and measuring progress, the more accountable they become. By involving staff in the development of key processes such as quality assurance we increase their engagement. This is true in all types of industry: healthcare, sales, sport, manufacturing, education – even at home with your children. The more people that are involved, the more they take ownership. The more they take ownership the more we need to focus on their achievements.

Lesson 4: Feedback and Development

Feedback comes in all forms. If a team member shows an improvement we might acknowledge them for it; we might criticise them and say they could have done better; or we might say nothing. Each of these is feedback. Positive, negative and none. Connellan expands on these further.

Positive feedback is reinforcement. It is energising. It validates effort. It makes the recipient want to do more. It works.

Negative feedback is punishment. It’s energising but negatively. If it is used when an achievement doesn’t quite meet the grade, it makes the recipient feel like they are being punished for trying. And when people get punished for trying regularly – they stop.

No feedback is extinction. It’s more punishing than negative feedback. If you ignore poor performance, the poor performance is likely to repeat. If you ignore good performance then you are effectively discouraging the effort. Consequently the effort will diminish and the positive performance will be lost. A negative and a negative. Lose-Lose.

What is the hardest to accept? Good or bad we all like attention. Good can encourage us to do more. Bad can encourage us to do better. None? We give up. So here is Connellan’s advice:

Reinforce immediately. Reinforcement should follow performance as closely as possible. Not tomorrow – today. Reinforce any improvement, not just excellence. Any sign of progress should be recognised. Even incremental progress is better than none.

Reinforce specifically. Be specific to what is recognised. Tell them so they can identify what to do more of. Reinforce new behaviours continuously. Reinforce good habits intermittently.

The last two points demand a bit more clarification. Connellan suggests there are two types of reinforcement style: Continuous and intermittent. Continuous reinforcement is best for developing new behaviours and is of value when bringing on new recruits and working to improve their skills. However, when someone has reached a good, solid level of performance, we can switch to intermittent reinforcement.

At that level people know when they are doing it well – they can reinforce themselves. All they need is an occasional affirmation of their value and maybe special attention when performance is excellent.

Feedback should be goal–related. A goal is a powerful motivator. Whether in sales or elsewhere, when a target is set, people want to achieve or exceed it. Goals or targets allow the individual to monitor their own performance. They are more likely to believe the information if they keep track of it themselves, especially if they are underperforming so they can spot weakness before others.

Feedback should be immediate. The problem with annual appraisals is the fact that they are annual appraisals! Feedback should happen continuously and appraisals should be made when the activity has been identified. Whatever feedback system is used, it should be more frequent than the cycle of the activity it’s aligned to. For example if monthly activities are measured, then weekly feedback is beneficial. If daily targets are set – say in a telephone support centre – hourly feedback is best. Feedback should be more rapid than the activity.

Feedback is also best monitored graphically. As “Le petit general” Napoleon is alleged to have said: “A picture is worth a thousand words”. We should use tables, charts, graphs, or infographics to demonstrate performance and feedback. Finally, a few words of wisdom on development from Connellan.

He gives us five steps for discussing performance problems that can stimulate commitment rather than unenthusiastic compliance.

1. Define the issue. Before getting into detail, state the performance issues. Make it a plain statement of fact. Don’t make judgement calls, don’t place blame and don’t jump immediately to the solution. The individual should understand that we are not attacking them but simply describing a behaviour or performance issue that needs to be addressed.

2. Ask for Solutions. Follow up with a neutral future-oriented question. You only get answers to the questions you ask. So if you are looking for solutions, ask questions that focus on the objectives and not on past performance.

3. Explore Options. Don’t evaluate each suggestion as it arises. Garner as many suggestions as possible, exploring every option and solution path. Don’t stop when you hear the answer you want to hear. Listen for alternatives, especially those where the other parties are implying they take ownership.

4. Reinforce Positive Responses. This is effectively re-establishing positive feedback and getting away from an us-vs.-them issue. Focus attention on the best options. The objective here is to turn the problem into an opportunity. An opportunity that the team member wished to take on as their own challenge.

5. Close the Deal. Wrap everything up. Get their commitment to accomplish a certain task or achieve certain results. Summarise the discussion and propose an agreement. Agree about future performance objectives. During the wrap up include positive feedback on their willingness to cooperate and their participation in finding the solution. Then step back and let them take ownership.

So there you have it, some terrific, actionable advice on how to really bring out the best in your team, your family, and yourself. To take this to the next level, use our Smart Discussion Guide to create an instant Lunch & Learn with your team and unearth more ways you can help them optimise their performance.