It's the holiday season, a time for giving. Too bad many of us forget to pass along the easiest, least-expensive gift of all - a simple pat on the back and recognition for a job well done.

No matter what your occupation, from Soldiering to manning a register in a store, you always want things to go well. If you hope for promotion or a raise in pay, you want to make sure your bosses appreciate the good things you do - and that bad things don't happen.

That desire gets extended when you have supervisory responsibilities. The best bosses want their subordinates to perform well. Part of that quest is to point out when things could be done better. Correcting errors and ensuring they aren't repeated is part of good leadership, part of being a good member of a team.

It is easy, however, to descend into the trap of being a nit-picking micro-manager. We have all worked for people who dwelt on nothing but the negatives. Every minor mistake, every deviation from perfection becomes a major crisis for these zero-defect managers. Working with such a person isn't easy or pleasant. It certainly doesn't build a happy, holiday spirit in the hearts of those who experience it, either.

Worse, that sort of hypercritical negativity has a way of spreading, too, especially when the zero-defect attitude comes from someone high up in the chain. Before you know it, every subordinate leader is emulating the top guy's style. It can make any organization one where workers hate to work. And in the end, job performance turns out worse than before.

Standards can stay high. No matter what the line of work, standards should be high. But while pointing out problems when they arise, a lot can be accomplished by letting people know when they do well, too.

In my first enlistment in the Army, back when Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery was stationed in Alaska, I worked for a section chief who embodied what I am talking about. Staff Sgt. Johnny Hughes stood about 5 feet 6 inches and weighed about 130 pounds, but he was tough as nails. He was also just about the smartest man I had ever met. He could do anything, knew everything.

Nothing got past "the chief." Every mistake, every oversight, every miscalculation was pointed out and corrective action prescribed. It could weigh on you after a while. But criticism wasn't the limit of Staff Sgt. Hughes' insight. Nothing done well missed his attention, either - and he let us know. After all the needed improvements were piled on our shoulders, after it seemed like we couldn't take any more, a "good job" from the boss worked wonders. We worked hard, and it was appreciated. We'd have tried to run through a brick wall if the chief asked us to.

Those supervisors who practice management by fear and intimidation never get that sort of devotion. And, when it really matters, they will never succeed as well as those who truly lead their subordinates, rather than drive them.

Through more than 30 years, I have remembered the lessons Johnny Hughes taught me. They helped me enjoy a successful Army career - more than eight years after I retired I still get calls from former subordinates bringing me up to date and sometimes asking my advice. I still follow those practices on the Northwest Guardian: keep the standards high, but remember that praise is just as important as criticism.

A pat on the back is a gift that costs nothing, but will return itself many times.

David W. Kuhns Sr. is editor of Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri December 12th, 2008 at 14:39