Bringing Out the Best in People (1985) By Alan Loy McGinnis Book Review

This is a book review of Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Enjoy Helping Others Excel” published in 1985 by Augsburg Publishing House.

4/5

“…a lighthearted look into the principles behind motivating others.”

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About the Author

The late Alan Loy McGinnis was a psychotherapist and the founder and director of the Valley Counselling Centre in Glendale, California. He is the author of several books, including The Friendship Factor (1979), The Power of Optimism (1993) and Confidence (1987).

He received degrees in theology, psychology and counselling from Wheaton College, Princeton Theology Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Columbia University.

About the Book

This book resulted from a seminar given by Alan Loy McGinnis titled “How to Bring the Best Out of People”. It turned out to be very popular as there was a growing recognition that managers and leaders need good interpersonal skills.

What “Bringing Out the Best in People” Promises the Reader

This book promises to deliver 12 principles to help you do well. The author promises that if you incorporate these principles into your daily life, you will get ahead and people around you will be grateful. What I got out of the book was good advice and tips to practice that will hopefully allow me to motivate others more effectively.

This book is really for those who want to become more effective motivators. It helps you realize that there is a vast amount of unutilized potential in people waiting to be tapped. Good leaders are able to capitalize on that potential through motivation and inspire people to give it their best.

How “Bringing Out the Best in People” Delivers on its Promise

The book is structured in an easily accessible way. It espouses 12 principles to bring out the best in people, each given its own chapter. Each chapter provides some theory, story-telling and quotes from influential people. If you crave leadership techniques, then this book is for you.

The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

There are 14 chapters. The two additional chapters provide context. The first chapter discusses the psychology of motivation. Don’t expect an academic, in-depth explanation about the psychology of motivation. It is broken down with very plain, easy to understand language. The last chapter highlights the joy of motivating others for the motivator. You help people, achieve great things and bring a lot of positivity into your life.

My Favourite Part of the Book

This book helps you develop legitimate power as a leader by helping people. I love this philosophy. This is as opposed to the “me-first” philosophy which encourages you to gain power at the expense of other people. The “me-first” philosophy grossly undermines the power found in good relationships. Like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, this book conveys its message through a combination of story-telling and theory which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My favourite part of this book is its light-hearted demeaner and its effort to bring the best out of the reader – you, the motivator. It emphasizes the importance of being kind, reasonable, and helping other people. As the famous poet Goethe once noted that “the greatest genius will not be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources”.

There were also so many fantastic, inspiring, and motivational quotes.

Favorite Quotes

“History shows that in almost every arena there is a vacuum waiting to be filled by some person who can impart vision and steer people’s energies into the best endeavours.”

“You are a motivator when you find goals that will be good for both sides, then weld together a high-achieving, high morale partnership to achieve them”

“If people expect good things from them, they will in most cases go to great lengths to live up to our expectations”

“The people who like people and who believe that those they lead have the best intentions will get the best from them”

“We can choose whether to build on their strengths or become obsessed with their weaknesses”

“You need the ability to fail. I’m amazed at the number of organizations that set up an environment where they do not permit their people to be wrong. You cannot innovate unless you are willing to make mistakes” – Charles Knight

“…the art of motivation is the heightening of emotion. It is appealing to the unconscious more than the conscious, to the right side of the brain than the left.”

“The best motivators know that one reason to recognize achievement is to help people concentrate on images of themselves succeeding, and that such mental exercises have an undeniable effect on performance.”

“Competition is always a factor for highly motivated people. The trick is to know how to use it in balance”

My Least Favourite Part of the Book

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, there are parts where I disagree, it is sometimes cryptic, and not always inclusive to the reader.

The book is framed from a Christian perspective. It is not as inclusive as it could be to other belief systems. He said early on that you need to study the people you are trying to motivate to find out their beliefs. So, for a book like this intended for motivators – not necessarily Christian motivators, I would have liked it to be more neutral without prescribing to any one political or religious stance. Earlier on in the book, he used an example of a man who became agnostic. As a therapist, he found success in his treatment by getting him to identify values and beliefs that he knows to be true. But when describing the result, he stated that the patient “even” came back to the church, to demonstrate how successful it was. I don’t know why that would add to the success of a therapy session unless the reader is assumed to have the same Christian value system. Many of the stories shared were biblical. I can find inspiration in biblical myths too, I love them. The bible is a great read full of ideas and stories that show insight into human nature over time. There is great wisdom to be realized in bible. However, the biblical stories chosen here were not the most powerful to me.

McGinnis goes on to say this: “…the longer I have sat in my counselling room and listened to people tell how they’re in over their heads and sometimes feel as if they’re going down for the third time, the more I’ve realized that no one can ignore tragedy even when they try, and that everyone needs some place to go once a week where they are picked up, given the long view, and strengthened with renewed hope.” This is an argument concluding that everyone should to go to church. I like church sometimes, there is always community there. However, I cannot help but feel this is out of place in a book like this.

Even if you are not a Christian, I still recommend this book. The Christian perspectives espoused are not too enforcing, and the content is still accessible and insightful.

Criticisms

Chapter 4 highlights principle #3, commit to excellence by establishing high standards for those you are trying to motivate. For the most part, it does an excellent job. However, in a discussion about reprimanding others it says to show your anger, annoyance, and frustration. I agree in a sense, but to what degree do you show these emotions? I struggle to understand why a motivator would want to sacrifice morale in the workplace for the sake of being angry. The best leaders are able to control their emotions (which is encouraged later in the book). But here the author explicitly tells the reader to be angry – which if not done tactfully could contradict your effort to create a positive culture. I assume the advice he gives here is not to be angry in a dramatic way, but to show others that their actions are impactful, even to you – the leader.

He goes on to cite Dan Rather who said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called the truth”. But I struggle to understand why the truth has to be a sharp stick in the first place. Getting negative criticism at work for me is often a blessing. It is a chance for someone to show me how I can be better. So rather than making the truth hurt, teach people how to absorb negative feedback in a positive way then teach them how to do things better. So why can’t the truth be encouraging, rather than a stab? If you both believe in their potential, the truth is a tool to help them achieve it. As Bob Chartier (author of “Handcrafted Leadership”) would say, this requires a shift in your mental model of criticism.

Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” gives a number of good tips on how to criticize others while still being liked. This is opposed to Alan Loy McGinnis’ view that you should expect others to be unhappy with you after they have been reprimanded. Yes, you will never be always liked by everyone. But I think there are diplomatic and strategic ways to reduce the unpleasantries of criticism and reprimands resulting in a less damaging experience. It is true, some of the worst leaders are those who have a desperate need to be loved by everyone and thus bend rules for some in an effort to appease them. Others will see that you treated them differently, counter to the rules or standards an organization upholds to ensure excellence. By bending those rules, you are harming the organization as a whole and everyone in it. In other words, by bending the rules for some, you are not acting in the best interest of the organization. So, McGinnis makes a good point here.

The author goes on to advise not to set people up for failure by setting expectations too high for someone to achieve. This enters a dangerous territory where you don’t want to cut someone short either. Don’t undermine their potential by setting your expectations lower than what they are capable of. McGinnis warns not to tell the “bottle washer” that she will be president. But maybe she could be. I would suggest talking with the other person. See what their expectations of themselves are. They will often undermine their own potential, at which point you can raise that expectation with encouragement. Many successful people started at the level of a “bottle washer”, then go on to do great things. The comment not to tell the bottle washer that they will be president troubles me because it forces the motivator to put a cap on someone’s potential. Is potential static? I think that potential can fluctuate and there is potential to increase someone’s potential. McGinnis uses an example about setting realistic expectations. If your child gets a D on an assignment say “I bet you will get a C next time”. Yes, maybe moving from a D to an A+ is unrealistic, so you do need to set the expectation somewhere more appropriate. What McGinnis does not say here is that you could set expectations up incrementally. Expect a C next time, but then expect a C+, then a B, then that A+. But that does not mean the child couldn’t get an A+ right away. People can be much more nuanced than on the surface of things. You need to ask why the child got a D. Maybe she was not challenged, or the teacher did not set good expectations of her, maybe she is being bullied or simply finds the subject matter boring. So, I get it – don’t set someone up for failure. It is good advice. However, I would say this needs to be done strategically, incrementally building up expectations.

Chapter 5 highlights principle #4, to create an environment where failure is not fatal. I love this rule, it establishes that failure is a good learning opportunity. However, this is highly centred on the employee, that they will learn from those mistakes. What it does not highlight is how the motivator or leader should also learn from their mistakes. They could be learning opportunities for the entire organization. This chapter is all about when someone makes a mistake, help that person learn from it. This is a narrow view in my opinion. Mistakes should be documented with lessons learned that can be shared. Why let a mistake one person made, be made time and time again by others, each one learning discretely. Imagine if we handled safety in this way. Every time a worker gets a concussion, they learn to wear a helmet. How many concussions will occur before everyone wears the  helmet? The motivator should not act like he or she cannot learn from someone else’s mistakes either. Mistakes that keep occurring may stem from processes, procedures or changes in external factors that have not yet been accommodated by the system. Mistakes made require lessons learned, not just on the individual level, but in a broader, systems thinking point of view.

Chapter 6 highlights principle #5, if they are going anywhere near where you want to go, jump on their bandwagon. Here McGinnis states not to let people think that they are failures just because they failed. This is an impactful statement. However, I found he missed the mark. I agree with the comment, but it still assumes that one’s failure in an organization are their own. It may be the case. But too often there are flaws in the system, the management, motivators, leaders, processes, procedures, standards, values, etc. Leaders should be able to learn from others’ mistakes too and assess those learnings through the lens of systems thinking. Sometimes a mistake is one’s own. I don’t want to diminish that possibility. However, what could you have done as a manager, or leader to have reduced those errors? How could you apply that to new employees, processes, leadership, etc. Take responsibility for those errors too if you can. Acknowledge the failure as a success if it results in better procedures, standards, or learnings for the organization. This takes humility, something discussed in the book, but not explicitly emphasized yet.

Chapter 7 highlights principle #6, to employ models that encourage success. He does this by emphasizing the power of story-telling, that “the best way to appeal to emotions is by talking about people, their struggles and their triumphs”. I think there is power in stories, however they must be used strategically and tactfully. Don’t give success stories about people with whom your audience cannot relate to. Don’t tell a democrat the success story of Donald Trump to motivate them. In business school they always use the filthy-rich as examples in their stories of success. I was never motivated by that. But even if I was, I think money as a motivator has limited use. Don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator – money. Use examples based on merit, principles and values that align with your organization, family or team. You want to have superior standards and values. You want your staff to be motivated by your company’s mission and values. Or do you want them to be motivated by wealth? What will the cost to your values and standards be, if trumped by wealth? This can lead you to a shady area, were corruption is accommodated. You cannot blame employees for prioritizing wealth over values if that is how you motivated them.

McGinnis goes on to say that these stories symbolize the human capacity to achieve greatness and to tell your staff that they can achieve greatness too if they work hard enough. But some organizations overwork their employees, who then become burned out. If someone was worked to the bone with core work-load resulting in minimal time to accomplish side-of-the desk projects and innovate, I could see them get slightly offended if a manager said, “you could be great if you worked harder”. They could fire back, “Am I not working hard as hell now? Maybe I could achieve greatness if you didn’t bog down each waking workday with mundane tasks.” Saying that you could be great if you work harder insinuates something about the other persons character – that they are not working hard enough now. That may or may not be true. It is also how and what you work, not just how hard you work. The farmer who works 12 hours a day doing hard labour is certainly working “harder” than the office manager on an 8-hour shift. So, McGinnis’ notion of creating a roadmap or pathway to success resonates with me. Not simply saying “he did, so can you, so do it. You’re not successful like that legend, so you are obviously not putting in the effort.” No. As a leader you need to steer their effort in the right direction to achieve that success. If you cannot steer them to the type of success you said they can reach in your story-telling – then how can you as a leader tell them that they can?

Chapter 8 highlights rule #7, to recognize and applaud achievement. I had a problem with an example he used here. He gives several suggestions to master the art of the compliment. The first one is to hand out commendations in public as one-on-one kudos are not as effective. McGinnis played sports in high-school. One game he played very well and wondered if the coach noticed. The coach did notice and said it in front of the whole team. This made Alan feel good, like he was somebody. However, he also notes that the coach chewed out a few other players, saying that they were nothing like Alan. So, do we also chew people out when we give commendations? It seems like a bizarre fact to throw in for no reason. So, we give praise to one person then single out two others to “chew out”. I don’t think that public commendations should go along with public reprimands at work. You don’t give an achievement award to someone followed by bringing up two underachievers to humiliate in front of everybody. I doubt he intended the reader to interpret it this way, but the example clearly implies it.

Chapter 12 highlights principle #11, to build into the group an allowance for storms. This is brilliant, there should be a pathway for negative behaviour to be accommodated. It will inevitably happen. There is always a storming phase in teams and there needs to be a way to manage that – it should be expected and prepared for. Here McGinnis gives you seven techniques to deal with troublemakers. The third technique is to identify “how destructive the person is”. But to me, a person is not destructive – their behaviour is. Do not frame it like this in your mind by degrading who a person is as a whole to some negative connotation. Behaviours can be destructive, and we want to nail down the why, how, and severity of those actions. Separate the people from the problem, not just in your communication with others, but how you think about others as well. McGinnis gives the advice himself when he says to see the best in people and assume that they have good intentions.

Conclusion

This book is a lighthearted look into the principles behind motivating others. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot. In the near future, I will write a post giving you the highlights and best tips on motivation that I found.

I found this material interesting. But I am more interested to hear what your thoughts are. If you have any comments, questions or criticisms about my post, or this book, please share them in the comment section below.

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