The Power of Noticing

The Power of Noticing


Max H. Bazerman, the author of a great business book with the above title has performed a wonderful service of exploring various cultural and mindset issue that have blinded great executives from being able to see impending disasters. He explores the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage industry, the fall of ENRON, the failure to prevent catastrophic impacts during Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and other major unanticipated headline events. I strongly recommend his book. It is substantially about risk avoidance and how these major events could have been prevented had the executive leadership noticed and acted upon readily available information. It is a must read for board members and executives in assisting them to view signs outside the normal realm of thought by improving their cognitive abilities to notice things beyond their frame of reference. However, it focuses on discovering patterns that prevents the negative from occurring. It further suggests that greater diligence by regulators, auditors, or outside consultants might be better able to discover the patterns of management which increase business or system risk. It does not address the Power of Noticing the good things that occur in a business which if reinforced can dramatically improve the results of the business.


On a more optimistic note, there are always a great number of things that most workers and managers accomplish that advance the results of a business. Even firms that are on the verge of bankruptcy or are in severe stress, have good things that happen every day, despite the overall negative environment or business trajectory. Since every human has an innate need to be of value and to feel appreciated, noticing when they do the right things is a powerful, and yet often missing, strategy in improving business performance.
Most leaders do not notice behaviors that are positive for the business and therefor do not capitalize on the needs of their subordinates. They under appreciate that every person craves positive feedback.
Before we move on in this article, let’s explore why this power is not routinely used. Note that I have avoided the term “recognition”. This term generally refers to a more formalized process which is conducted by human resource departments and has certain requirements that ensure that only truly exemplary team members are rewarded. By necessity, the vast majority of individuals, are excluded as we do not want to overlook someone with greater performance and thus cause tension or envy in the company or we do not want to limit ourselves to the possibility of terminating someone at a later date by placing something in the employee or company records that describe the employee in positive terms that will later offset poor performance that warrants termination. Second, managers and leaders are so biased for problem solving, that they are only focused on negative things and cannot see more ordinary, positive things that occur fairly routinely throughout a given week. In fact, they routinely walk past the good things that are happening within their field of view. This is probably the opposite or Max Bazerman’s premise, but is rooted in the same type of management or executive mindset.


There were several things that happened beyond the individual feeling good that someone finally noticed (after all the years) that he or she had done something right. First, the recognition extended to their supervisor. Second, it may have been the first time in many years that an executive noticed his or her behavior. This may seem a tragic commentary on most managers, but it is true for most teammates. The other thing that routinely occurred is that the green note was displayed in the work place, generally at the work station of the teammate as there was pride in being noticed. Following this, I was often asked by other teammates what they needed to do to receive a green note. It presented a frequent opportunity to explain both good performance and how it was consistent with improving the business.
Overall, I would be disciplined to spread these notes around the business. I would also limit the number (8 to 10 weekly) as it was important that they be somewhat rare and therefor sought after. These were never about the typical large scale things which we typically think will change the course of the business. Some of these behaviors were occurring infrequently. However, when these good behaviors were repeated by others throughout the organization there was a dramatic shift in the momentum of the business. These collective small wins created a virtuous cycle that improved morale and performance. In all of the situations, the collective improvement in results was achieved within a few short weeks.


Sonya Hamlin in How to Talk So People advises that between hearing and sight that sight is the more important and powerful sense when it comes to communication. She wrote, “As a species, we remember 85 to 90 percent of what we see but less than 15 percent of what we hear.” The above effort capitalized on this theory. Simply making a verbal comment often was lost in the daily routine. Writing a green note and having a supervisor deliver it became a way of multiplying the recognition.
By the teammate displaying the note in public, there was repetition of this powerful visual affirmation of the positive behavior. By the way, I never sent a red note to a teammate. Not that there were not performance shortfalls, but those are addressed in private conversation and upon immediate observation. There is simply nothing to be gained by waiting to correct negative behavior.


Business growth is dependent on the shift from primary reliance on past knowledge and aging practices, to a forward-facing perspective with a clear view of evolving business environment and best-practices aligned with conditions in today’s marketplace.