Branson: Forgo faint praise—accentuate the positive

Making an effort to communicate better with your staff is a good start, but be sure you’re using the right language.

A few issues ago, I wrote about the importance of senior executives’ going walkabout—or leaving their offices every now and then to take a stroll through their business, from the factory floor to the accounting department, to get to know their people better. But a friend recently took me to task: “You’re absolutely right, Richard, but there are a lot of individuals who are better off being locked in their offices.”

He told me about a chief executive he’d once worked with who loved to go walkabout, but usually with disastrous results. It seemed that this CEO couldn’t effectively express her appreciation for employees’ efforts. Everywhere she went, she left behind a trail of discouraged workers because she was constantly guilty of “damning with faint praise.” Like the Italians who used to declare, “At least Mussolini made the trains run on time,” this CEO’s half-hearted attempts at paying someone a compliment were so feeble that it would have been better if she’d said nothing at all.

Interestingly, families are adept at this particular art form. After a relative has slaved to put a really nice dinner on the table, a teenager may say something like: “Mmm, that dessert was really great!”—the subtext of which is, “but the rest of it wasn’t too good.”

Sometimes business leaders are similarly unaware of how damaging poor turns of phrase can be. I recently heard the chairman of a multinational tell an audience, “I very much appreciate the service of our senior team through some very difficult and challenging times.” I suspect that “very much appreciate” was hardly an endorsement that sent them home feeling good about themselves. It should be abundantly clear to employees that their achievements are recognized and celebrated. Understanding what a person does well and discussing it in detail will also help you get a clear sense of what could be done to improve your business even further. When people know that they are valued, listened to, and recognized for their accomplishments, they are more at ease and more open to discussing what they’d like to do better and why.

In the workplace, examples of poor communication abound. Often, such miscommunications are about camouflaging bad news, but that doesn’t help matters. I cringe when managers say things like “We didn’t do badly,” which doesn’t mean they did well. Or, “We did better than last year,” when last year was a disaster. When the CEO I mentioned earlier was asked how things were going in her business, apparently her favourite response was: “It could be worse.”

Sometimes language itself can be a contributor to communication problems. In Virgin Records’ early days, when a leading music-industry executive from the U.S. visited us in London, his conversations with us made us suspect that he was a bit disapproving about our artists and what we were doing at the label. It was only after a number of trips to the United States that I figured out that he hadn’t been at all negative—in fact, the opposite!

It came down to our differing interpretations of the word “quite.” In British usage, if someone says, “I think you have some quite good bands,” it means you have some fair to middling performers. When an American says the same thing, he may mean that you have some very good bands.

In many instances, it all comes down to paying attention to people’s reactions. A CEO having trouble connecting with people as she goes walkabout should take notice of their discomfort. In such situations, it is important to do more listening than talking. Once she understands an employee’s perspective, a leader will find the right words with which to respond.

To address my friend’s concerns about the potential negative impact of going walkabout: I agree that it might not be the best thing to do if you’re having a bad day. If that is the case, keep the door closed and your voice down. But if you must venture out, avoid phrases like “We’re having an OK year.”

As that old song from the 1940s suggests, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / And don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

If you pull it off, you will have done “quite” well!