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Accentuate the positive!

Want to optimize performance? Continue this timeless and musical advice: “Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.”

5 min read



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Today’s managers shoulder the significant responsibility of delivering individual and organizational performance, and doing so in a fast-changing environment.

For many, accomplishing this mission involves sophisticated monitoring systems that provide real-time data about how results are tracking against goals, with a focus typically upon when the mark is being missed. Many leaders have become masters at minding the gap, evaluating the delta and assessing the shortfall. They then develop improvement plans, take corrective action and offer constructive feedback to those involved. Sound familiar?

In most organizations, considerable energy and attention are invested in what’s off track as opposed to what’s working well. Perhaps it’s time to turn this upside down and heed the advice of the old 1940s song “Accentuate the Positive”:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative …” ~ Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (1944)

According to research conducted by Gallup, only one out of three US-based workers strongly agrees that he or she received recognition or praise for doing good work over the past week. And it’s understandable. Given the time-starved world in which we live, today’s leaders must prioritize their efforts, knowing that they’ll likely never get everything done. Problems or “squeaky wheels” demand immediate attention; quiet, solid performance routinely goes unnoticed.

And all of this represents a significant and costly missed opportunity for managers and organizations alike. Affirming and appreciating employees cost literally nothing and research suggests that they offer a range of benefits, including:

  • Reduced stress and improved physical wellbeing
  • Heightened cognitive functioning
  • Enhanced decision-making, problem solving, and innovation
  • Greater trust, connections and bonds among people
  • Higher levels of engagement and retention

Affirmation and appreciation don’t just benefit the employee. They also benefit the leader. Research suggests that shifting one’s focus toward gratitude can improve the health and well-being of the giver. Simply giving what’s working equal air time changes the experience of supervision, infusing greater positivity, optimism and energy into the manager’s experience at work.

In his book “Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others,” Tim Irwin explains, “The word affirmation originates from the Latin affirmationem, which means to make steady, to confirm, and to strengthen.” Affirmation and appreciation let people know they’re on the right track and help to build focus, capacity and resilience for the future.

You likely already know the fundamentals:

  • What: It’s nothing more than a simple, authentic expression of appreciation for what a person has done and/or who he/she is.
  • Where: In private offers a more intimate, personal setting but public expressions can amplify the message while also communicating to others what you value.
  • When: As soon as possible after the contribution or episode, but don’t skip affirmation just because time has passed. This is one of those “better late than never” things.
  • How: Verbally — in person or by phone — is great; in writing provides a lasting record that people will look back on for motivation. In either case, personalizing it to the individual is key.

Highly effective leaders take these fundamentals to the next level with strategies that personalize the recognition, keeping it fresh and meaningful. Try one (or all) of these appreciation amplifiers.

Talk ‘em up. Offering expressions of affirmation directly to the individual involved is powerful. And you can build upon this by bragging about them to others. (This might be the only positive way to talk behind someone’s back!) Sharing your appreciation with others is sure to get back to the individual and reflect positively upon you as well.

Time tells. In the words of Tom Peters, “Your calendar never lies.” Investing time and attention communicates powerfully about what’s important to you.

How do you spend the bulk of your day? What might happen if you redeployed just a small portion of that time toward connecting with those who are performing well? This doesn’t just send a message to them and your whole group. It also offers an opportunity for you to expand your understanding of what’s working and best practices that might benefit the rest of the team and, perhaps, the organization as a whole.

Lend your support. Words are powerful. But actions speak even louder than words. People feel deeply appreciated and affirmed when your words are backed up with support for what matters most to them. Resources. Tools. Roadblock removal. These sorts of tangible demonstrations of support buoy spirits and performance.

Identify the intangibles. Movie tickets and money are nice, but the half-life of such delight can be quite short. Instead, draw upon what you know matters most to these people and identify something that might be less tangible but more meaningful: A day to work from home. Time off. Visibility. Responsibility. Whatever it is, the intangible can be invaluable.

Want to optimize performance?  Continue this timeless and musical advice: “Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.”


Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at

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