Have you ever gotten “stage fright” and frozen at a key moment? Perhaps it was during a live performance in front of a large audience. Or perhaps it was in a more subtle setting such as when you were taking an exam like the ACT, SAT, or CPA. No one else knew you were “stuck.” You weren’t embarrassing yourself in front of hundreds or thousands of people, but you knew. You were frozen, uptight, stuck, and your mind was blank. Been there and done that! Ugh!
Over the years, I’ve taken many exams. Different states, different countries, different subjects. I’ve taken pop-quizzes, tests, and long exams. Most have been no problem. I’ve taken exams that took many hours and required deep expertise. Exams such as the Engineer In Training (EIT), Professional Engineering (PE) and Certified Qualified Engineer (CQE). While I didn’t necessarily enjoy them, I didn’t freeze.
But there was one memorable exam in my life. It was during my junior year in college. The class was “Statics,” a field of study in mechanics. Our professor, actually a graduate assistant, didn’t like me. He told me to stay one day after class and told me to stop smiling so much. He said it was distracting to him. Of course, it was difficult because I sat beside Ms. Clemson. The professor didn’t like me. Looking back, I don’t really blame him. I probably wouldn’t have liked me either. I was an arrogant, cocky, and pretentious college student who was passing notes with Ms. Clemson behind his back. And without meaning to, I was disrupting his class and showing him up. It didn’t help that we only had 20 students in the class and met in a small, intimate room. Ms. Clemson and I sat in the front row. When the professor was writing equations on the board with his back turned, I was passing notes 6 ft behind him. It was a SMALL classroom. Clearly, this was before smart phones and texting were commonplace. I didn’t love Statics but it was easy for me as all my engineering courses were. What’s not easy? Math, science, and Ms. Clemson.
Well the day of our first exam came. The mid-term. The night before I’d helped my roommate study. Statics didn’t come as easy for him. I tutored him. Even though Statics was a required course in his major (mechanical engineering) and an elective in mine (industrial engineering), it was a breeze for me. At least until we walked into the mid-term, which accounted for 50% of our semester grade.
I’ll never forget it that day, although it was over 30 years ago. I walked in, sat down, and the professor handed out the exam. There were only 3 problems. Easy as pie. I’d be done early. Well, I looked at the first problem and for some reason, my mind went blank. Instead of going on to problems 2 and 3. I fought it. I spent half the class period trying to figure out problem 1. I was so panicked that I started sweating profusely. I looked down to see two large ovals of sweat on the thighs of my jeans. I couldn’t breathe. I had cold sweats. I asked the professor if I could go into the hall and get a drink of water. I knew he’d say no. But he took one look at me and nodded his head. I looked bad, really bad.
I took a few drinks of water, breathed deeply a couple times, and came back in. I worked problem 2 and 3 and turned in my exam as the bell rang. My score? 67%. I got problems 2 and 3 correct. Though I’d written some things down on problem 1, I got no partial credit. In the end, I got a B for the course. Though I ended up graduating with honors the following year, that one exam kept me from graduating summa cum laude. I graduated with a 3.86 GPA. Good enough for magna cum laude but short of the 3.9 GPA I needed to graduate magna cum laude. All because I “froze.” By the way, my roommate? He scored a 90-something on the exam and finished the course with an A!
When taking exams, professors generally look for what’s wrong and mark it as such. To be fair, some also check for questions you got right. And really great professors write words of encouragement on the paper or exam. But for the most part, schools and businesses alike look for the bad. They look for what’s wrong. They look for the one thing out of 100 (or 1,000) you did wrong and provide feedback on that one thing.
This past week I saw an article on LinkedIn that reminded me of this. The gist of the article was “Get used to it. The world won’t give you credit or acknowledge the 9 things you did right. It will focus on the one thing you did wrong.” And most the comments to the article were, “Yeah, that’s right. Get used to it. Put your big boy pants on and accept it because that’s how it is.”
I’d like to offer a different take. It’s simply this, while the world may largely look for the bad, you don’t have to be like the world. Separate yourself from the pack. Be different. Stand out. Look for the good. Great leaders do. Yes, there are exams in the real world. Performance matters. But if you want to maximize performance, the best way to do it is: 1) Define what behaviors you want (that drive the result you’re ultimately after), 2) Clearly communicate those behaviors, 3) Look for those behaviors, and 4) Reinforce those behaviors. Don’t look for what’s wrong. Look for what’s right. Then reinforce it.
From Sea World (training the next Shamu) to the US Government (training agents to identify counterfeit money), great leaders and world-class organizations look for what’s right. Become a master of reinforcing the right behaviors (called shaping). Become an encourager. Develop and grow others by looking for what’s right. And then reinforce it. Exhort others. Build others up. Use words to positively reinforce. Be different.
For 30+ years in a variety of states, countries, industries, and countries, I’ve been told, “You’re different.” The reason I’m different? I look for what’s right. I had a couple great mentors early in my journey. I tried looking for what’s right and it worked. The results speak for themself. At home with my kids. At work with teams. In the US. In SE Asia. In Canada. In Mexico. In Latin America. In Europe. In Africa. It works. Dare to be different. Be a great leader. Communicate expectations, look for what’s right. And then reinforce. It’s that simple.
Will you look for what’s right this week? Will you reinforce the positive behaviors you want to see? Have a great week.
Dr. Robert Gerwig is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.
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