Bag Full of Hammers

I was talking with someone this week about the chicken and the egg, and it kind of hit me: the ugly side of good order and discipline is simple. Punishing bad behaviors so they won’t happen again is easy. We have a well-defined path to take individuals down.

I have a bag full of hammers, one a little bigger than the next, and the time I use each is defined. There’s paperwork for every step until I have to be the bad guy and beyond. I can take any person doing wrong and put them into a process designed to be both fair and fairly painful until people either stop doing the things they shouldn’t or start doing the things they should. If anything, my organization has generations of experience in the negative part of good order and discipline. Most other organizations have a process as well, because that sort of stuff must be consistent and hold up to scrutiny from outside entities.

What about the other side? What about the positive reinforcement that allows us to be the well-oiled machine everyone wants to be a part of? How do we connect and interact with each other, and how do the people in charge identify what works without losing credibility in the process? The hard part is that we can’t standardize the way we connect with each individual or group, and every attempt to do so turns into a recognition program that doesn’t always add value or positively reinforce the daily good we rely on.

If we go back to my bag of hammers, I can say that we have about half a dozen of the same blunt objects that work as well-understood responses to bad decisions. The whole thing easily fits in just about any toolbox, and I can carry it with me from one command to the next. I’ve even found very relatable versions of these hammers in the civilian world, so I’ll even go so far as to say I can bring these disciplinary tools with me anywhere in the world and make good use of them.

But, what about my bag full of positive stuff? How big is it? What do those tools look like? Are they all carrots and cookies? I don’t know quite yet. All I can say for sure is that the positives aren’t standardized throughout the organization. Reinforcement of the good things that create a positive culture are much more personal.

First, I have to see those good actions and interactions, which I can’t do from my office. I have to get up, walk around, and look for them. I need to find those people working behind the scenes and poke my head behind the curtain when possible. I have to make myself available and approachable so people can tell me something good. Second, I need to be sincere. My people are very perceptive, and if I’m not sincere in my desire to find and reward the small successes, they will know it. I dare say yours will too.

By nature, people want to participate in the positive, and that reinforcement is the defining piece. They want to be in a room where participation is valuable to them, not mandatory. And no, using the smallest hammer you have, the smallest negative, is not a positive. If the only tools in your bag are hammers, then I recommend you find some more tools. What they look like and how you use them, well, that’s for you to figure out all by yourself.

Start with one. Find one positive thing and reward it. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be sincere and uniquely yours to give, even if it’s just a smile and a pat on the back. The rest will come naturally if you let it.

– What have you found that works for you when you need to find and reinforce the positive?

– What programs looked good on paper but ended up counterproductive?

– When you did well and were rewarded one of the first times, when you were just starting out, what was it?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.