• Leadership Essentials – Starvation in Corporate Malaysia

    I can’t believe it. We are in the 21st century, and we have starvation

    in corporate Malaysia. I’m not talking about food-deprived starvation.

    Rather, I’m talking about another type of human need – the need to

    be motivated through positive reinforcement at work. My observation

    is that rather undesirable management behaviours are tolerated, and

    even accepted, in Malaysia. This is based on a paradigm of “push

    and drive harder to achieve results.” But it need not be so. Let me


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    Before this article is branded as being “soft and fluffy”, let me share

    with you some tangible results. I draw on the research conducted by

    the authors of the Carrot Principle, Adrian Gostick and Chester

    Elton. Companies that most effectively recognise their employees:

    • Have a return on equity triple that of those companies which

    do the worst on recognition

    • Have higher customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and

    employee retention rates. These scores will translate into

    dollars and cents

    TMI’s experience over the last 35 years continues to reinforce the

    positive business results that are achieved by adopting its

    philosophy of Putting People First.

    Let’s now be clear about what we are talking about. The core

    question is, “How can we affect people’s behaviour to have them

    achieve more?” We have two choices – positive reinforcement or

    negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves some form

    of recognition for good work. It might be positive feedback, a simple

    “thank you” or a team celebratory morning tea. This is the “carrot”

    approach to achieving more through people. The aim is to have

    people do more of the behaviour for which they are being

    recognised. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is fearbased.

    It is the stick. It is the threat of negative consequences for not

    completing a task to target or to quality. The behavioural

    consequences of negative reinforcement are that people will perform

    to the minimum standard to avoid the negative consequences, e.g.,

    a scolding, from recurring.

    Now here is the main point behind this article. I ask employees,

    “How good is your manager at giving positive feedback?” A common

    answer is, “Positive feedback – what’s that?” I believe that managers

    are much too frugal with positive reinforcement. They spend too little

    time creating a positive culture in their teams or organisations,

    where people feel motivated and energised. This situation is not

    restricted to Malaysia. It is a common management malady around

    the world. However, this is not an excuse that we should hide

    behind. Rather, it should be a rally-cry for Malaysian companies to

    say that they want to be better than the rest of the world in building

    energised, motivated, high performing employees. The benefits to

    the nation, to companies and to individuals are great, so it is

    definitely a worthwhile rally-cry!



    yields tangible





    people to

    work harder




    people to do

    just what is


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    There are many really good bosses in Malaysia. They have

    developed motivated, high performing teams that will go the extra

    mile. I have had the pleasure of working with a number of these

    teams. A common factor among these bosses is that they have

    positive, people-focused management styles. They achieve results

    through positive reinforcement. They create a positive emotional

    connection with their employees. These people use a different

    language. When I ask them about how things are progressing, they

    start talking about their people.

    On the other hand, when I talk to less effective people in leadership

    and management positions, they talk about strategy. I am writing a

    book with Paul Hutton, currently General Manager of the Sydney

    Hilton. This is the most profitable Hilton outside of North America.

    Paul has been successful in building highly engaged teams,

    enviable levels of customer satisfaction and great financial results in

    four countries – Kuwait, Romania, Malaysia and now Australia. His

    results are definitely not a fluke! Paul focuses on people, people,

    people. I said to him, “Paul, do you have a business plan? You

    never mention strategies and plans.” He looked at me and said, “of

    course we have a plan. My role is to engage people to do a top class

    job and to follow it through.”

    Outweighing the good bosses like Paul are the ones who are still in

    the very old hard-driving, achieve-the-results-or-else school. I was

    talking to a manager who works for a large local company. He works

    for a pretty high profile boss. I asked him, what it is like to work for

    your boss. His eyes rolled. He said, “Shouting is like breathing to my

    boss. We are scolded in front of our colleagues if our boss is not

    happy with our performance.” I had heard the same story from

    different people. I asked this manager how people felt when they

    were on the receiving end of the boss’s tongue lashing. He gave the

    classic answer, “I have given up. I just do what I have to do in my

    job.” I asked one more question, “Does your boss positively

    recognise the work of his managers?” The short answer was,

    “rarely.” This boss has developed a reputation for getting results.

    However, human beings are the collateral damage in the process of

    achieving those results. And, this person’s style begs the question,

    “If a more positive style was adopted, would better results be


    Engage your

    people to


    your plans



    styles get

    results – with




    ©2009 TMI Consultancy Sdn Bhd | www.tmimalaysia.com.my | Page 4 of 5

    If you delve a little more deeply into why Malaysian managers don’t

    give positive reinforcement, you will discover a cultural paradox. I

    was visiting someone’s house and started talking to a young 19 year

    old university student. She was Chinese-Malaysian. I asked her

    what she did. She was studying medicine in Paris. After talking to

    her for a while, I turned to her father and said, “Your daughter is very

    intelligent,” to which he replied, “No, she is not that intelligent at all!”

    This is the cultural paradox in Asia. When the current generation of

    managers were brought up, it was in an environment where parents

    did not praise them, lest they get “big heads.” However, they were

    certainly told when their performance was not up to their parents’

    expectations. The paradox is that as human beings, we appreciate

    and are motivated by positive feedback. Some people need more

    positive reinforcement than others and there is not a “one size fits

    all” approach. However, the general principle applies – employees in

    corporate Malaysia appreciate and are motivated by positive


    So here is a simple test for the coming month. Start up a “Pat-o-

    Meter”. This very simple Meter has two separate dials. The first is

    the number of pats on the back and positive feedback that you GIVE

    to your colleagues. The second is the number of pats on the back

    and positive feedback that you RECEIVE from your boss and

    colleagues. If your Pat-o-Meter shows a healthy positive score,

    congratulations! There is a good chance that you are on your way to

    being part of a high performing team.

    If your score is low, then you and your department are likely to be

    one of the throngs in corporate Malaysia that are starved of

    recognition. If this is the case, check to see whether people are

    coming to work full of energy, ready to go the extra mile or whether

    they are doing just what is required and talking of burn-out.

    If you score low on giving other people recognition and positive

    feedback, now is the time to start. A simple and cost-free starting

    point to end the starvation among the people around you is to learn

    the power of two words, a genuinely delivered – “thank you”. Use

    these magic words consistently and watch what happens. Until the

    next edition!

    PS. Thank you for reading. Email me if you have any comments or

    suggestions. I will thank you even more for the trouble that you take!

    The positive




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    Copyright © 2010 by George Aveling

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