I like doing odd experiments. Once I complimented every person I ran into for an entire day. (Fun, but occasionally awkward.) Another time I decided to do 5,000 pushups in one day. (Not fun, but definitely enlightening.)

Another occurred to me a few weeks ago when a pest control tech came to the house to spray for bugs. I realized he was taking longer than usual. When he came back upstairs he said, "I noticed the drain line under your deck was clogged and water was building up underneath. So I took a few minutes and cleaned out the leaves and sticks. I put everything in a trash bag and I'll take it with me."

Of course I thanked him.

He didn't have to do that. It definitely wasn't part of his job. So I called his company and said, "(Joe) was just at our house and I wanted to let you know..." But that's as far as I got. The manager interrupted me. "If there was a problem," he said, "I promise we'll deal with it." 

I explained why I was calling. I let the manager know how much we appreciated (Joe) taking the time to take care of a problem I hadn't even noticed -- and one that definitely was not his responsibility.

It almost felt like the manager wasn't really listening, though. He seemed stuck in defense mode, still was waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Which made me wonder: Do bosses so rarely get positive feedback about their employees that the presumption is any feedback will be negative?

And that made me decide that, for one day, I would take the time to give (deserved) positive feedback about employees to as many bosses as I could.

The Rules

Challenges work best when you impose structure, keeping you on track and reducing the temptation to rationalize that you should change your goal midstream.

​For this experiment the structure was simple:

  • ​Whenever I interacted with an employee I had identify something they did well. Most of the time that turned out to be relatively easy; all you really have to do is pay a tiny bit of attention.
  • But if I did struggle to identify something positive, I needed to try to spark it: Being a little friendlier, asking a question... basically giving the employee a chance to shine.
  • And in each case I had to keep trying until I connected with the boss.

The last item turned out to be a lot harder than I thought; at times it felt almost impossible to reach anyone in a position of authority.

So with that in mind...

First stop: The grocery store.

Finding people doing a good job was easy. When asked, the woman behind the seafood counter suggested the rockfish, then took a minute to give me grilling tips. The man re-stocking produce seemed happy to check the stockroom for blueberries. (A grandson loves blueberries.) The check-out clerk was both briskly efficient yet also casually friendly; most people can't do both. 

Finding a supervisor to give feedback to was a lot tougher. And when I did...

The person in charge of fresh meats seemed wary when I said, "(Sarah) was just helping me with fish and..." Obviously he felt I was going to complain. Once he realized I wasn't, he looked relieved... and also eager for our conversation to end. Since I hadn't presented him with a problem he needed to deal with, he immediately shifted back to "busy" mode. I'm not sure anything I said even registered.

The same was true with the produce manager; in fact, his first response was, "I'm surprised he had to check in the back. It's his job to know his inventory levels."

At least the store manager seemed pleased when I told him how nice and efficient the check-out clerk had been. "I will definitely let her know what a good job she is doing," he said.

But I did walk out feeling a little deflated. I had taken the (admittedly not much, but still) time to let people know their employees were doing a good job, but in large part that effort seemed wasted.

Next stop: The gym.

Not a great idea. Even though I go to a bunch of different gyms (thanks to Planet Fitness for making that easy), the setup is almost always the same. A person behind the desk stops chatting with coworkers for a moment, or stops looking at their phone, and scans your card. If you say hi, they say hi back. If you don't, they often won't. (Try it -- you'll be surprised to find how often you need to be the "greeting initiator.")

On this day I worked out at a university gym. The young lady that checked me in swiped my card and said, "You're all set." Not much I could do with that.

The young man at the desk in the middle of the workout area was doing his job, but since his job seems to be a whole lot of sitting and a little bit of folding clean towels fresh from the laundry... yeah.

But then I thought about it. Most of the students who do that job ignore me. After all, I'm the old guy at the gym. (Here's another experiment you can try: If you're over, say, 40, walk around a college campus and see how many students will make eye contact with you, much less nod or say hello. It's like you're invisible. Not sure why -- maybe because the campus is their world and you're encroaching?)

But when I walked by, he smiled and nodded. Unlike his peers, he always does. He's seen me a bunch of times and doesn't pretend otherwise. So I said, "How's it going?"

"Doing well, sir," he said. "Chest and triceps for you today?" I nodded. "If you need a spot, let me know," he said.

So as I was leaving I stopped at the front desk and asked to speak to a supervisor. I told her that I appreciated how friendly the workout area attendant was. I told her it's easy to feel like an outsider in a college gym, but he made me feel welcome. 

As I did, the four students working the front desk stared. I could tell they saw their jobs as a process job, checking people in and answering occasional questions, and not a service job. The thought that someone might notice whether or not they were friendly had clearly not occurred to them. (Maybe that's because a university gym has a captive customer base; it's not like it competes with commercial facilities. But still.)

The supervisor thanked me. As I walked away I heard her telling her student-employees, "That's why you have to be friendly to everyone who comes in..."

And I thought, "Don't do that... They got the point. You don't need to hammer the lesson home. Now they'll focus on how you scolded them instead..."

Oh well.

Last stop: A restaurant.

I did other things that day. I called to make a change to my cable TV plan. The representative was great, even making a suggestion that saved me money. Getting in touch with a supervisor to say what a great job the rep had done was almost impossible, though; it took almost 20 minutes for someone to finally pick up. 

Which is ironic... since when I was initially on hold I was asked to would participate in a survey after the call. If you really want my feedback, don't make it easy for you to collect. Make it easy for me to give.

I did a few other things. Sometimes giving feedback was easy. More often it was not.

Then I went out to eat.  And the server was great.

Friendly. Not in that fake "performance" way; naturally, making me instantly feel at ease. Efficient without seeming rushed. Engaging without seeming forced. Kept glasses filled without being asked. Swung by with a raised eyebrow so she didn't interrupt the conversation.

She was smooth.

I told the manager as I was leaving. Unlike nearly every other boss I spoke with, she didn't assume I was going to complain. She smiled and listened. She didn't interrupt. She seemed genuinely pleased by the feedback. It seemed to matter to her.

And as I was leaving, I knew it mattered. I saw the manger talking to the server. The manager smiled. The server's smile was bigger. The manager patted her on the shoulder and the server nodded her head in a nonverbal thank you. 

And as they parted, they exchanged, clearly not for the first time, a fist bump.

Which, for me, made the whole experiment worthwhile. 

What I Learned

Companies say they want feedback. But most don't. Many make it really hard. And that's a shame, especially since engagement -- and job satisfaction -- is based on knowing that you, as an employee, matter. So why not make it as easy as possible for employees to know that they matter?

Bosses should never assume feedback will be negative.  One, if I'm giving the feedback and I can tell you think it will be bad, what does that make me think about your business? Clearly you're accustomed to criticism. Two, you make it a little harder for me to not just give, but be a giver. If I'm pleased enough to want to provide positive feedback, while it might sound cheesy... that feedback is a "gift" I'm giving.

Make me feel appreciated for that "gift" and I'll think well of you, and your business. Make it hard, or make me feel like my "gift" is not appreciated... and I won't.

A job is more than a process. Most employees know how to do their jobs. Stock clerks know how to stock shelves. Check-out clerks know how to run registers. Gym attendants know how to swipe cards.

Your employees know how to do their jobs. 

But what often gets lost is the people side. A helpful stock clerk -- and a friendly check-out clerk -- will do a lot more to make me a loyal customer than an impeccably maintained produce aisle or an incredibly quick check-out clerk. I can work out anywhere; a friendly gym attendant helps me feel I belong at your gym. Food is, for the most part, food; but a server who treats me like a person, and not just a customer, makes me feel at home in your restaurant. 

Making it easy for people to give feedback, especially positive feedback, and then immediately -- and happily, not grudgingly -- passing that feedback on helps employees understand that ultimately their jobs are not just about products and services, but about people.

Whenever possible, people don't want to do business with a company. People want to do business with people.

Some bosses don't feel employees deserve praise for simply doing their jobs. But every employee deserves to hear praise provided by customers. 

Besides: A little encouragement may be all a poor performer needs to turn the productivity corner.

Because we all perform a little better -- at anything -- when we feel a little better about ourselves.