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




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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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Aveling, CEO of TMI, as the owner of the copyright.

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