What does it mean to catch someone doing something right?

The power of positive reinforcement has been shown to be highly effective and motivational, but there seem to be some common misunderstandings about what it means to “catch someone doing something right”. In my consulting and personal experience, here are some common misconceptions about catching people doing things right, and the remedies that I recommend.

Good doggie
Catching people doing things right is more than a pat on the head

Catching people doing things right is not empty praise

Telling someone “good job” or “you did that well” or “nice report” or “great presentation” is the verbal equivalent of a high five of a pat on the head. It feels good in the moment, sure, but it doesn’t actually tell the individual what they did right. It’s end-praise for a job well-done. It’s not process praise for hard work.

Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindset tells us that if all we do is praise children for their smarts and end product, we can inadvertently create a fixed mindset. Children with a fixed mindset are less resilient, put in less effort, and are more likely to cheat or lie. However, process praise for effort and progress are more likely to lead to a growth mindset. Children with a growth mindset see challenges as learning opportunities, they are more likely to persevere and they are more apt to fulfill their potential.

The same goes for adults. We can tell empty praise a mile away. “Sure,” we think. “You say I did a good job but you weren’t here, you didn’t see me work hard, you didn’t see me make sacrifices, and telling me I did a good job isn’t really meaningful right now.”

Catching people doing things right is not holding up someone as a role model

I know a person who was told all the things he was doing wrong, and then was told that he has to be better because others look up to him as a role model – those who are junior to him and learning from him. This is definitely not catching people doing things right. This is holding someone to a higher standard, but it’s doing so based on the negatives, and it’s almost punitive. Reading between the lines, we can hear something like, “You are a disappointment to us – look at how many eyes are on you and you still can’t hold it together and do a good job? What’s wrong with you?”

There is nothing wrong with telling someone that he is a role model, and there is nothing wrong with asking for a higher standard of behaviour, outcome, product, and so on. But let’s be clear that those behaviours and demands are different than catching someone doing things right.

Catching people doing things right is not a once-a-year performance review discussion

Many performance review processes include space for a “what went well” sort of discussion: what goals did you meet, what accomplishments did you obtain, what successes did you realize, and so on. This is a great time to discuss strengths and to celebrate successes. But if this is the entire extent of catching people doing things right, then it is ineffective and hollow. Catching people doing things right does not have to wait for a formal occasion. It can happen every day – indeed, it should happen several times per day! If we adhere to Barbara Fredrickson’s positivity ratio, catching people doing things right should happen three times as often as catching people doing things wrong. John and Julie Gottman’s research would seem to indicate that we should be experiencing and sharing those positives fives times more often, notably with those close to us that we wish to develop positive relationships with. Annual performance discussions, even with quarterly or monthly touchpoints, aren’t going to even come close.

So what is “catching people doing things right”?

Catching people doing things right is a new lens on the way you view others’ behaviour and performance. It’s about recognizing effort and input as well as final product and output. It is saying thank you and expressing gratitude. It is commenting even on seemingly small things that someone is doing to move things forward, even if incrementally. It is looking at strengths, like patience, perseverance, kindness and generosity, even if there is no positive outcome as a result.

It is a positive conversation, asking the other person what they are doing that they feel is contributing to a positive outcome. It is asking them how they are feeling about their efforts. It is helping them to recognize that sometimes, doing the “right thing” doesn’t always lead to immediate positive results, but it’s important to do the “right thing” anyhow.

And it is catching yourself doing things right too – the times that you persevered, the times that you stood by your values, the times that you made a strong effort, the times that you were patient in the face of adversity and learning. The more that you catch yourself and others doing things right, the stronger this “right-catching” muscle becomes, and the more focused that lens will be. Catching people doing things right is a relationship-building and self-efficacy-enhancing tool. Done properly, it will build competences, skills, knowledge and attitudes that we all wish to see in our workplaces, in our children, in each other and in ourselves.


I would love to hear your stories of catching other people doing things right, and the outcomes that it had for you. Please comment on this blog below! Let’s catch ourselves doing things right, by sharing when we caught other people doing things right! 

Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

Reader Interactions


  1. Judy Krings says

    Hi, Lisa and thanks for reminding me of Gable’s work in relationships as well as Dweck’s.

    I love character strengths, so I try to catch my clients using one or constellations of them and mindfully praise their usage as well as their effort to sue these in novel ways. Often they will say, “I never thought of it that way…That I was using a strength I have.” This is fun for us both, and it usually lights up their fire of awareness and skill-building. Great for parenting, too.

    Many thanks for another PAUSE to remember PROCESS is Primo!

    • LVS Consulting says

      Thanks Judy – I love the notion of catching people doing things right by their strengths. Constellations of strengths is a great one too – I was just teaching about that in a night course last week! Definitely lights people up! Thank you for your very kind and supportive work!


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