A Letter to Change a Life

March 21, 2010

Tom Peters in his latest book entitled “The Little Big Things” tells us a story. Retired United States Navy Captain Mike Abrashoff knows the importance of saying “thank you.”

In his first book, “It’s Your Ship,” he related how he sent letters to the parents of his crew members on the guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold… Putting himself in those parent’ shoes, he imagined how happy they would be to hear from the commanding officer that their sons and daughters were doing well. And he figured that those parents would, in turn, call their children to tell them how proud they were of them.

“Abrashoff debated whether to send a letter to the parents of one young man who wasn’t really star material. Weighing the sailor’s progress, he decided to go ahead. A couple of weeks later, the sailor appeared at his door, tears streaming down his face. It seems the kid’s father had always considered him a failure and told him so. After reading the captain’s letter, he called to congratulate his son and tell him how proud he was of him. “Captain, I can’t thank you enough,” said the young man. For the first time in his life, he felt loved and encouraged by his father.

“As Abrashoff says, “Leadership is the art of practicing simple things – commonsense gestures that ensure high morale and vastly increase the odds of winning.” In other words, small changes can have big consequences.

One letter changed a life.

School time is over. Report cards will be given. And there will be parents who would say:

“You did well my son and I am proud of you.”

Another one might say:

“I know you did your best and I am sure you will do better and I will always be there to help you.”

Where will this take the kid? To a better place as I am sure of this.

But then some parents would say:

“You’ve always been lazy. You did not do your best and I am not happy with your grades.”

Another one would say:

“You’re not like your sister who did well and I am so certain that you will never be good at anything in life.”

Maybe the worst of them all would say:

“I would be surprised if you do well. You’re just like your dad. There’s just nothing good about you.”

Let’s go to the work scene. To have skillful, competent and secure leaders who know how to lavish praise and compliments on their people is a rarity. Most of these “leaders” may have the position but they do not have the skills and the substance to inspire their people to become better. They feed on their own ego and pride and use intimidation, coercion, insults and ridicule thinking that in doing so their people will perform better and guess how wrong they are. From child rearing to the office, the frequency of negative reinforcement typically outpaces the positive ones and this is why there is a need to understand the power of positive reinforcement.

A simple positive comment, “You did so well.” A simple “thank you I appreciate that.” A small plaque, a FREE LUNCH offered and watch the magic of how positive reinforcements have on your people making them better performers and better persons. Notwithstanding the fact that in doing so it makes you a better leader or a better parent as well. Be lavish with honest praise and inspire the people in your life to become better people.

Mark Twain says: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

Haim Ginott says: “If you want employees to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.”

But one of my favorite quotes comes from humorist Robert H. Henry who says: “A man doesn’t live by bread alone. He needs buttering up once in a while.”

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to show your appreciation and say a good thing to your spouse as well and should I add another one? Your mother-in-law?

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. rj

    i think this is very timely for my fellow graduating students and perhaps the other educational institutions nearing the end of their academic year. positive reinforcement will probably be very important to those only beginning to start their career. also i think the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” portrays very well this importance of showing gratitude or simply saying thank you.

  2. rommel

    You have kept on inspiring us sir Francis! Thanks alot! You keep on teaching us how to be a better son, person, with family, friends and in the work place.

  3. teddy

    i’ve been a fan of yours for almost 2 years now and have been sharing your articles to my colleagues.

    i would like to point out something though. you stated that:

    “…the frequency of negative reinforcement typically outpaces the positive ones and this is why there is a need to understand the power of positive reinforcement.”

    for us – clinical psychology graduates – who apply what we learned in theories of learning in the contact center industry, your statement on NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT is misleading. from what i gathered, you likened Negative Reinforcement to that of Punishment.

    negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by the REMOVAL of an AVERSIVE STIMULUS (commonly seen as unpleasant) thereby increasing that behavior’s frequency. In essence, Negative Reinforcement is beneficial.

    and that Positive punishment (Punishment) occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by an aversive stimulus (such as intimidation, coercion, insults and ridicule).

    while Negative punishment (Penalty) occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a favorable stimulus (such as not giving praises, withholding rewards).

    i hope that this clear things up. i wouldn’t want to confuse fellow psychology graduates and six sigma practitioners who incorporate theories of learning in their work to better improve processes and people as well.


  4. whacky

    I met you the first time back in September 2004 in baguio when you gave a talk about transformational leadership. from their i have been your follower. I used to be moved by your stories especially this one because I am a leader too. Now i have another way to move my team to be productive and be an influence to others too. God bless and more power

  5. anne

    april 1, 2010

    thanks Francis for an inspiring message. This is a good idea to boost the morale of my co workers.

  6. Kerwin

    need to butter up someone…

  7. joven

    wow…..so amazing!

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