A Simple Expression of Praise Works Wonders

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in
Reflections on Excellence

A few months ago during one of my frequent walks of the manufacturing floor at a client’s site, I stopped to read the previous shift operator’s comments that appeared to express some frustration. To do so, I had to ask two men who were carrying on a conversation to move slightly so that I could get to the visual control board. As part of my polite request, I made a comment about how proud I was of the operators and what they have been able to accomplish as part of the transformation process. This natural expression of praise was spontaneous and I truly was not even aware of making it.

Both of the men stopped and look at me with the strangest expression on their faces. One of them tilted his head, looked me in the eyes and asked me to repeat what I had just said. Caught off guard, I paused for a moment and repeated my expression of pride in the workers who, through their natural work teams and as individuals, had eliminated many of the constraints and restrictions associated with their manufacturing processes and literally raised the bar for the entire facility.  

With this strange look still on his face, this gentleman said, “You really mean that, don’t you?” When I answered in the affirmative, he thanked me for my feelings and open expression of pride. He went on to comment that no one had ever thanked the operators or expressed pride in them. As it turned out, the man was the president of the local union and that brief, unintentional conversation assured his support and elevated the effort put forward by the hourly workforce to an even higher level.
I have shared this incident with others, including the executive of this client. Most have been skeptical and attributed this chance encounter to pure luck. I do honestly believe that it is people who make the difference. Involved, motivated employees can and in most cases do work miracles. This incident and the response of those I shared it with rekindled memories of my first mentor.

The world was a different place in the early 1960s when a brash, egotistical, freshly vetted engineer entered the business world. In those days it was all about me. Any success was my success, any win was my win. Without me, the world would no longer turn. Fortunately for me, a very wise man decided to help this self-centered person recognize the error of his ways. He showed me by his actions that no one—no matter how smart or how good—can achieve success alone. He never tried to be the center of attention, actively sought input from everyone on the team, listened more than he talked and never, ever accepted credit when the team successfully finished a project. Invariably, he would pass the credit on to the team or elevate a team member into the spotlight. Conversely, if we failed it was his failure, not the team’s or someone on the team, even when it truly was because someone on the team was responsible.

I finally asked him why he never accepted credit and always absorbed blame. His answer has stayed with me and has become a part of my DNA. He said he did it out of selfishness—that he wanted to be successful in everything that he attempted, that he wanted to be viewed as a success. I will admit that I did not get it at first, but he continued to explain that his success depended on others. No matter how hard he worked, no matter how smart he was, he could not possibly be successful without the help of others. He said that the best way to gain that help was to swallow his ego and elevate others.

After acknowledging his rationale, my naivety led me to my next conclusion. “You mean all I need to do is tell other people they are important, praise them for their work and basically con them into making me successful?” Looking back, I am surprised he did not throw up his hands, give up on me and walk away. Fortunately for me he did not. Instead, he patiently adjusted my lack of logic and clarified my vision. He explained that one cannot fake praise; no one can con others into doing anything. It has to be genuine.

You probably all know someone who says the right words, sends the right memos and goes through the motions of praising the effort of others, while claiming all the glory for wins and passing on the blame for failures. These individuals may enjoy some short-term success. They may even climb the corporate ladder but in the end they will fail. Why? Remember, no one can do it alone. True success depends on a team effort—when everyone works together to accomplish a common goal. True success comes when you can forget the “me” and embrace the “we”. Remember to absorb the blame and pass on the praise. A few words of praise—honestly given—will work miracles.

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

"Praise, honestly given, works miracles."

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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