Focus on results, not effort

One summer when I was in high school, I worked for a house painting company to make some extra spending money. I had a bit of painting experience and figured that working outside painting houses was better than flipping burgers at a fast food joint.

One of our first projects was painting a gorgeous, colonial house in the Linden Hill district of Minneapolis. I was given the task of painting the trim on the windows. If you’ve ever painted window trim, you know that it’s not that easy. In order to properly seal the glass, you need to leave a nice bead of paint between the wood frame and the window pane. Otherwise, the freeze/thaw cycle of cold weather will wreak havoc on your stiles, rails, and muntins. (Hey, I was an architect, I have a duty to use the right terms.)

I spent all day painting several windows and sweating profusely in the summer sun. At the end of the day, our foreman − a big Scandinavian guy named Erik − looked at my work and shook his head.

“Not good enough,” he said. “You see these gaps here and here?” he asked, pointing to two sections where the paint didn’t reach the glass. “And these areas, here, you have too much paint,” he continued, finding several spots where I was overly generous with my brush.

I explained that I worked all day on these windows and that I tried really hard to do the best that I could. He grinned as he said something I’ll never forget:

“Well, I guess your best just isn’t good enough.”

There it was. I was crushed! Before Erik had seen my work, I was proud of the time and effort I put into it. And yet, it just wasn’t good enough.

Erik saw my look of dejection and said, “now look here, I can see you put in a lot of work and time. I’m not saying you didn’t. I’m just saying that we can’t leave these windows like this.” He paused, then continued. “We get paid to paint the house and people expect a quality job given what we charge. We don’t get paid for how hard we work. We get paid based on how good the paint job is.”

Grabbing the paint can, the brush and a scrapper, he waved me over to the first window.

“Look, I know you can do better, and I’ll show you some tricks to getting this right.” He used the scraper to remove the paint I just laid down and then dipped the brush in the paint can.

“First, load your brush with a good amount of paint, but not too much. Then put your outside fingers on the window to stabilize your hand as you glide down the pane. Go slowly and watch how much paint is being laid down, and adjust the brush pressure as you go.” Then he handed me the brush. “Now you try!”

After a few attempts, I figured out how to leave a nice bead of paint. The next day, I scraped and repainted all of the windows. And that summer, I went from being a beginner to an (almost) expert level house painter.

But perhaps the most important thing that I learned was what Erik taught me: that in business, people don’t pay you for your effort. People pay you for results.

There are a few things that Erik did when he focused on my results that I’ve found most great managers do.

First, he turned the results into the goal, rather than the effort spent. My goal wasn’t to spend a ton of time. Or to feel good about my work. Or for Erik to feel good about it. Without beating around the bush, my work was just “not good enough.”

By focusing on the results in a neutral way, you remove the drama and vagueries around the message.

Second, Erik quickly acknowledged my effort and explained that he wasn’t making this statement about me personally, but about the results I delivered. He separated the two, which allowed him to be highly critical of the paint job, without diminishing my effort, motivation abilities, or intent. His feedback was about the product, not about me or my character.

This is where a lot of managers get it wrong. When an employee doesn’t perform up to par, they make it personal and they criticize the employee rather than the product. And when managers say things like “you didn’t try hard enough” or “you know better than to think that this is good enough,” that’s personal. Making it personal never leads to desirable outcomes.

The fact is, you don’t know how hard they tried, what they thought or even what they are truly capable of. You only know what you can see: their results.

Finally, Erik immediately helped me fix the problem. He showed confidence in my ability to get better even though he found my results unacceptable. He made specific comments on the work I had just finished. He showed me where it was wrong and how to fix it. Then, he had me do it so that he was sure that I got it right.

The rejection of my paint job was certainly an emotional blow. But that was my issue, not his. Erik’s clear, neutral and fact-based approach to teaching me how to get better minimized the time I spent emotionally reacting to the situation and instead helped me improve.

By focusing on results in the right way, you can ensure that work is done up to your standard and can help your people learn and improve.

Here are a few tips for how to focus on results in a productive and an effective manner:

  • Make sure the results that you’re after are clear and objective.

  • Point out what was done correctly as well as what wasn’t.

  • Be specific and show them examples in their work.

  • Only comment on things you can objectively see, hear, touch, taste or smell − anything else is subjective and open to interpretation.

  • Explain why it’s not correct and the impact that will have.

  • Show them how to make it right and then have them do it.

  • Agree on a plan for redoing the work and a reasonable check-in point.

  • Try not to use judgmental words like “bad,” “poor” or “terrible” when pointing out defects. Instead, use words like “incorrect,” “needs improvement” or “needs to be changed.”

  • Avoid commenting on the person’s intent, character, motivation, intelligence, etc.

What to put this idea to work? Pick a recent time when you reviewed someone’s work. Go back to the situation and answer the following questions. If you answer “no” to any of them, write out how you could have done this differently.

  • Did you start with comments on factual results?

  • Did you use a neutral and objective tone?

  • Did you point out things that were correct as well as incorrect?

  • Did you support the person's confidence in being able to do a better job?

  • Did you point out specific things that were incorrect and show them how to do it correctly?

  • Did you set up a plan for making changes and a check-in point?


* * * * *

Bruce Eckfeldt is an organizational consultant and business coach. Previously an entrepreneur and a former Inc 500 CEO, he now focuses on advising startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. He is a long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and a mentor for the EO Accelerators, ERA, and SBS programs. You can reach him at or visit his website at

Want to improve your management skills? Join 52 Habits and get an email each week to help you better manage yourself, your teams, and your projects.