Stop Celebrating Success

A lot of managers are big on “celebrating success.” This idea is a trap — for some not-so-obvious reasons.

When we’re patted on the head — “good job” — we get a short-term high, an undeniably great feeling, but something insidious happens under the surface: a part of us becomes dependent on the head pat:  “I got rewarded last time, but this time I didn’t hear a word.  What does that mean?” And maybe without noticing it, we wait for the other shoe — the criticism or judgment of “failure” — to drop.

As one of my favorite writers, Alfie Kohn, says, the most salient aspect of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment.  “Right” implies there’s a wrong; “good” doesn’t exist without “bad.” Ain’t no such thing as a one-sided coin.

And when we think we may be judged as “bad” or “wrong,” we tend to retreat into fear; our ability to live to our fullest potential gets squelched.  This is human nature.

So instead of celebrating successes, here’s a more helpful approach:

Notice success, point it out to all involved, identify the conditions that created it, and replicate them.

We tend to pay more attention to the negative than the positive.  We tend to be critics.  We tend to focus on what’s not working.  I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?  The problem is, we extend that to “If it ain’t broke, why pay attention to it?”

But if we don’t pay attention to what’s working, we don’t notice the conditions that fostered success, and so we can’t build those conditions into our efforts in the future, so as to create more success.  There’s a methodology in organizational development and education that has this notion as its central concept.  It’s called “appreciative inquiry,” and it’s transforming many individuals and organizations.

If all we pay attention to is problems, then problems dominate our awareness, and our entire world begins to look … well, like a problem.  Face it, your reality is quite simply a product of what you pay attention to.  This is why cops so often develop a negative, hardened view of life — every day they pay attention to bad behavior.

So it’s really about balance — about our worldview reflecting an accurate picture of what’s going on.  Pay as much attention to successes as you do to failures, and your view of reality will become more accurate. And, you’re more likely to replicate your successes, and those of your team.

YOUR PATH FORWARD:  Once a month, ask your team to name one project or activity that’s working well — that doesn’t need improvement.  Then ask them why it works so well.  Note their answers, and then ask a two-part question:

  1. How can we make that project work even better by maximizing the conditions that have fostered success there? and
  2. How can we apply those conditions to other projects, activities or domains, to make them work better?

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

4 thoughts on "Stop Celebrating Success"

  1. Judy says:

    Love it! As it seems to happen with each of your posts, this one was just what I needed to “hear.” Thanks!

  2. Steve Motenko says:

    Great to hear, Judy! So glad I can make a small difference through my writing, and so glad you’re reading!

  3. Twyla says:

    I find it amazing how easy it is to focus on the bad, the sad, and the so called impossible. It is nice to hear you talk about focusing on the positive. I agree!!

    1. Steve Motenko says:

      Glad you agree, Twyla! Our culture tends to take a “problem” focus toward everything. What a transformation we could make if we chose a different, “appreciative” approach…

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