Four Ways Positive Reinforcement Wins


(By Jeff McHugh) Can one piece of advice change your life? I remember exactly where was I standing in the second-floor hallway at Dick Broadcasting in Greensboro when one sentence of wisdom from Randy Lane set my career path.

I was a first-time program director and Randy was hired to coach Chris Kelly and Chris Demm – who became Two Guys Named Chris – and market icon Jack Murphy. I asked how I could be a more effective coach and Randy leaned in with a lowered voice and said:

“Catch them being great and make a big deal about it.”

In the 25 years since that moment, Randy’s wisdom has guided my work for broadcasters across the US, Canada, and Mexico – and my coaching for business presenters worldwide at companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Delta.

Positive reinforcement is your most powerful influencing tool. When someone receives heartfelt praise, that high-five releases dopamine in the brain, almost guaranteeing repeat behavior.

Some managers focus on the negative. Criticism triggers fear and stress which shifts the brain out of learning mode and into fight-or-flight mode.

Positive reinforcement resonates with everyone — your kids, your dog, your partner, and your friends. Fake praise, however, does not work. Your compliment has to be sincere and specific.

Consider these stories where I have witnessed the effect of positive reinforcement and think of how you might use thoughtful accolades to uplift someone that you work with:

  • Your boss – As an operations manager, I experimented with having talent in my cluster listen and critique other talent – shows from other markets, other countries, and competitors – to see what they would learn. Afterward, one of my team said, “That was really helpful, boss. I got a ton of ideas. Thank you.” Her comment made a lasting impact and I continue to use that practice today.
  • Your coworkers – We were coaching executives at NBC Universal in Burbank on why it is important to skip the boring warm-up talk and start presentations with a powerful headline. At that time, Netflix had just added that “skip intro” button at the start of shows, and I used that as a clarifying metaphor. At the end of the day, a fellow coach praised me for the idea and pointed out how powerfully it impacted the audience. I have used that analogy ever since.
  • Newbies and Apprentices – Learning to speak in corporate training outside of media, my director booked me to practice with a room of excited, newly-arrived immigrants to the United States. That week, then-President Trump had been bashing immigrants unfairly in the news. I took a risk and made a very light Trump joke. The room erupted in laughter, and I will always remember looking up to see the director give me a smiling nod and thumbs up.
  • You – Coaching a team at SXM Media (SiriusXM and Pandora), we broke that self-critical habit we all have by requiring everyone to write down everything they did well as they watched themselves on video. Intentional self-focus on strengths works as powerfully as a compliment from someone else.

Think of praise and criticism in this old parable about a grandfather using a metaphor of two wolves to teach his young grandchild.

“Two wolves are fighting. One is darkness and despair and one is light and hope.” When the child asks which wolf wins, the grandfather replies,

“Whichever one you feed.”

Jeff McHugh is known for developing remarkable talent for both morning and afternoon drive. He brings an uncommon mix of positivity, creativity, and strategy to the shows that he coaches. He is a member of the team at the Randy Lane Company. Reach Jeff at [email protected] and read his Radio Ink archives here.


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