The flame of a candle will go out in the wind, but that same wind will feed the flame of a fire. Leaders of organizations need to understand the balance of the people. We must do our best to build organizations that are full of people that can not only withstand the wind, but that thrive on it.
So, what is the wind in this metaphor? It is different for everyone, but for most people, it is probably constructive criticism. The key word in that phrase is “constructive,” which means, “helping to improve; promoting further development or advancement.” If you are scolding or just unloading your frustrations on your people, this is not constructive criticism. Be specific about what is not meeting the mark and help them understand how to move forward. If they are emotional, get through the initial emotional meeting and follow up later for a more level-headed conversation. Time usually brings perspective, and even if you didn’t see eye-to-eye at the time, it would likely be a more relaxed conversation the second time around. At the very least, you will have had time to think through the previous discussion, and you will know each other’s opinions ahead of time.
Oxygen is in the leader’s gas can. A leader uses oxygen to fuel their people’s flames, and it is positive reinforcement. Much research has been done to show that people respond to this type of conditioning. Simply by adding words of encouragement anytime, someone does good work, meets deadlines, and meets expectations is reason enough to let them know. I am not saying to go overboard here. Your response should be on par with the level of work they did. If they met the deadline, then say thank you for meeting the deadline. If they completed their work early and the work was far beyond your expectations, then perhaps some bonus time off is in order or recognition at the next staff meeting will do the trick. The key is to encourage your people to continue to do great things. Also, you should be working to make this a habit, not all of us are good at it, and I’m still working on it!
Any positive reinforcement when not warranted is poison. This creates confusion and sends the worst message. It tells your people several things that are terrible about your leadership skills. It says, you don’t know the difference between good or bad behavior, you are afraid to be honest, you don’t know how to deal with negative behavior or negative feelings, or you are short-sighted because you would rather lie to them for ‘good feelings’ now than to have a difficult conversation at the moment and the potential for a better future.
All of this will help create people that can handle the challenges of life. Life is hard; work is hard; getting promoted is hard; finding a new career is hard. If leaders don’t take the time to help create “fires” instead of guarding our actions and language to the point that all we have are “candles” we will continue to face weak organizations that are unable to change and shift with the demands of the industry.