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Managers who don’t catch their people right at least as often as they catch them wrong, tend to have disengaged teams. By failing to frequently acknowledge their good work, they make their people frustrated, excessively risk-conservative, and – worse of all – teach the lesson that good work is not worth the effort.

Managers should spend more time catching their employees right. Of course, there are good and bad ways of doing this.

Three common mistakes

A common mistake is to reward effort. Don’t. The more you reward effort, the more you will get effort instead of outcomes. Instead, only reward outcomes. 

Another common mistake is to only acknowledge large outcomes. Don’t. If you wait for large outcomes, you can only acknowledge an employee a few times a year at most. That’s not nearly enough. Good employees achieve many small positive outcomes every month – and every time you let one pass unacknowledged, you risk them learning the bad lesson that effort and results aren’t rewarded here. So, offer positive reinforcement for both large and small outcomes.

However, a caveat. Acknowledge small bits of good performance, but don’t acknowledge underperformance. For example, if one of your employees writes a great report, let them know. But if they wrote a mediocre one, that doesn’t count as a small bit of good performance and, therefore, shouldn’t be reinforced. 

A third common mistake is to wait for a performance review or a one-on-one meeting to give feedback. Don’t. If an employee does something great today, he expects to be acknowledged today or tomorrow. If your next meeting is in two weeks, by then, he will have learned the lesson that good work goes unacknowledged. His reaction will be to disengage. Instead, if you catch one of your people having done something good, let them know immediately. If that means sending them a quick chat message, that’s okay. Immediacy is critical.

Catching people right

Here are ways in which you can catch your people right.

  • If you work in-person (i.e., not remotely), spend time at your people’s workplace.
  • If they produce reports, presentations, or other deliverables, review them every now and then. Do it with the spirit of catching them right, not wrong.
  • During meetings (both internal and external ones), be receptive to mentions of good work by one of your team members. If you hear of one, make a note to take action right after the meeting to praise them.

I often teach the following rule of thumb. You should catch your people right at least as much as you catch them wrong, and at the very least once a month. If you don’t, you should probably spend more time looking for the good they do.

What if you have underperforming employees?

A common question I get after the previous paragraph is, “Luca, this makes sense if you have high-performing employees, but what if I have someone who simply doesn’t do things worth being acknowledged?”

In this case, give them smaller and more specific objectives – something they can achieve in one day. Be extremely concrete about what you want. Ask them if they have any questions. Give them the help they need to feel like they can succeed at the task, but don’t give them so much help that, if they achieve it, it wouldn’t be a sign of growth.

I’m not saying that you should ask less of your employees. I’m saying that you should break down the growth you want out of them into small steps that they can achieve and be acknowledged for within a week or even a day.

Growth trajectory


Unless you catch your employees right more often than you catch them wrong to generate and sustain engagement.

Be more aware of the good they do – and when you notice some, let them know immediately.

However, be careful not to compromise on performance standards. Instead, shift your focus from large milestones to smaller tasks and objectives – not smaller as in “asking less of your people” but smaller as in “you can evaluate success within a few days rather than having to wait a few months.”

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