Watching for the Wrong

By | Monday 23 March 2015

In our society, most of us are trained from early on to watch for the wrong and to criticise in order to improve. I have seen this happening in many places, from school to home to work, and especially in the way that people talk to themselves.

However, few of us are trained to watch for the right and to praise in order to improve. Although I see this occasionally (recently, more commonly in schools), it has been rare.

What does this obsession do?

This obsession trains us to constantly be on the guard, to criticise, to find fault, to view the world as a place full of incompetence and wrong. Sometimes, I come across people who have been so brainwashed with this viewpoint that they seem unable to agree with anyone, and are quick to scorn and complain about other people’s viewpoints.

I see parents taking this approach with children (I was guilty of this in my earlier parenting days), pets, colleagues at work or on forums, and more. Friends sometimes do this in the belief that they are helping.

Some people use this to assert superiority (“What? How can you not know this?”) or to bully people.

It can create a defensive attitude in people, which means that they become afraid to share and — ironically — even afraid to improve (in case they become worse).

What would changing this obsession do?

I have read several studies of how to change behaviours in both people and animals. Without exception, these studies have shown that a reward-based system achieves better results, and faster, than any punishment-based system.

This applies to everything, from grades at school to polite behaviour and even with training animals. A child who tries hard to get his parents’ praise will do better than a child who tries hard to avoid punishment.

Replacing constant criticism with a different, kinder approach creates a sense of trust between people, motivating them to do their best and try their hardest.

That’s not to say that punishment never works, but that it nearly always doesn’t work as well; and strict punishment generally doesn’t work well at all (otherwise the USA, the land of massive imprisonment, would be a haven of peace and good behaviour).

Guidelines to fixing this

Fixing this is easy, but it can take time because of a lifetime habit. Practice these simple guidelines daily to change how you motivate and help others’ achievements — and, if you apply them to yourself, watch how you change, too!

  • Watch for the right. This sounds easy, but if you are in the habit of watching for the wrong, you may struggle at first. Actively look for every little thing that a person does well. If a child who is usually messy carries a cup without spilling, that is an achievement.
  • Praise sincerely. Empty flattery is insulting, but sincere praise warms the heart. When you find something that someone has done well, ask yourself what specifically is good about it, and praise the person for that. “Well done; you managed to carry that cup without spilling a drop! I’m proud of you.”
  • Choose statements of identity wisely. When criticising, people often say things like, “You are stupid.” That is a statement of identity and makes the person feel small. If you have to criticise, choose the behaviour not the person, and praise the person: “Dropping that cup was a clumsy thing to do. I know that you are careful and can work out how to carry the cup carefully next time.” The first part criticises the behaviour; the second part creates a great sense of identity (“you are careful”) and gives the person responsibility to do better next time.
  • Even when things go wrong, find the praise. When a person tries his best and still makes a mess, it’s not because he was trying to do bad! “I know that you dropped the cup this time, but I’m proud that you tried so hard.” This motivates the person to do better, instead of worrying about what you’ll say.
  • What went right? Assessments tend to look for what went wrong so that you can fix it. But that ignores what you did right! Imagine an assessment finding that you managed to do 20% right. That doesn’t seem like much — but how would it feel if the assessor said, “OK, so you did 20% right. That’s good. Can you figure out specifically what you did right so that we can work on getting to, say, 25% right next time?” That will motivate you far better than a scathing criticism, wouldn’t it?
  • Stop being judgemental. This last point is probably the most important. Don’t judge people. Don’t judge yourself. Just… don’t judge. People are who they are, and mostly they are doing the best that they know how with the resources they have available. It’s unfair to ask people to live to your standard simply because you can do better in certain situations. After all, if you ask them to do that, you will have to live to their standard each time that they can do better that you.


Taking your eye away from the “oops” ball and fixing it instead on the “yay” ball improves your health (by reducing stress) and the health of everyone you deal with (for the same reason). It improves people’s motivation and desire to do better.

It takes practice, so don’t criticise yourself when you get it wrong — instead, follow these guidelines and work out what you got right! Then you can work out how to keep doing it right.