That One Sentence Matters

by Stephen T. Messenger

April 27, 2021

I have to admit, this was a moment of weakness.  I was at the track early on Monday running quarter mile sprints.  I felt slow, lethargic, and just plain old.  The last two weeks, my running has been declining, and I was starting to mentally feel like my glory days in athletics were behind me.  Suddenly, this older gentleman in an Ironman shirt plodded past me.  He looked me right in the eye and said, “That is one nice stride you have there.”  Then he was gone forever.

Amazingly, these eight words from a complete stranger were all I needed to get my mind back on track.  I immediately felt stronger, faster, and younger.  Nothing changed in my body.  Everything changed in my mind.  That one sentence mattered.

I see this often at work and home; one positive or negative sentence can make all the difference.  The majority of people show up to work every day to earn a paycheck and be proud of their efforts.  They’re trying hard to do well.  They love when the boss notices and acknowledges they are making a difference.  A leader’s words, even if only one sentence, matters.

There are two keys to being successful with your one sentence.

1.  If you think something good about someone, say it.  I heard this once in reference to marriage, and the same applies at work as a leader.  When walking around and interacting with your team, let them know that you notice their efforts.  It may seem like someone may know what you’re thinking, but that’s rarely the case. The one positive sentence you tell them may change a bad or normal day into a complete mentality shift on the spot.  It happened to me while running.

In “The Office” Season 4, Job Fair, the boss of Dunder Mifflin, Michael Scott, talks to a potential intern about their secretary, Pam, while she ‘s out of earshot.  He sings her praises and lauds her talents, but ends with, “But don’t ever tell her I said that.”  One systematic flaw of bosses is that they are too busy, distracted, or afraid to praise their employees.  Some think too much praise may lower productivity.  On the contrary, if you think something good about someone, say it.

2.  Provide concrete feedback.  If you’re going to limit your praise to one sentence, which isn’t necessary, make sure there’s a tangible example for the receiver to hold onto.  While simply saying, “Great job” is a start, giving a concrete example allows your coworker to understand what was great about their actions.

The United States Army Master Resiliency Training has a module called effective praise.  Adding details about specific behaviors behind a generic “great job” has three benefits.  First, is shows you were really watching.  Second, it adds authenticity to your remarks.  Finally, it allows the receiver to focus on those aspects of success and replicate them in the future.   

If you agree that one positive sentence truly does matter, then you also know the damaging consequences of a negative one or no words at all.  I’m not talking about providing feedback to problem performers.  They need consistent counseling and mentorship to improve.  This refers to someone working hard on a project and achieving success. For example, the boss comes around and focuses on a negative aspect of what they’re doing, or they don’t acknowledge their work at all –“Don’t they see the value I bring to the company?”  The follower suddenly becomes deflated and unmotivated just because a leader didn’t take a moment to recognize an employee’s noteworthy efforts.

We’ve all been there—working hard and waiting for recognition that never comes.  It’s frustrating and depressing at the same time.  A boss acknowledging their work could mean everything to some employees and immediately change their mindset.  Contrast this to a well-meaning, but degrading comment or a failure to say anything, and you could have the opposite effect.  We all can do better than this.

I challenge you this week to make those sentences matter.  If you see something good, say it.  Provide concrete feedback to highlight exactly what you see and why it was praiseworthy.  Try this both at work and especially with your spouse and children.  Try it with a total stranger like the stranger at the track did to me.  It’s amazing how one little comment in passing helped change my mindset. 

That one sentence truly matters.

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