In an article in Training Magazine, Jack Gordon tells about the Lesson of the Trench.
He was working on a construction crew in North Carolina on an apartment complex when they discovered the basement to one of the complexes was seeping water due to insufficient tar on the foundation. So, in order to expose the foundation, someone had to dig a trench next to the wall, 7 feet deep, 14 feet long, and wide enough to work in.
He, along with two others, were assigned to dig a trench and tar the wall. As one would expect, it was well over 90 degrees and on the south side of the building. By noon, he and his companions were stripped to their boots and jeans and looked like rust-colored mud people. Even with bandannas tied around their heads, they couldn't keep the mud out of their eyes for long, so they had to stop and plunge the bandannas into a bucket of water to wipe their faces.
They were about to break for lunch when they saw the sales manager towering above them. There he stood, very splendid in his white plastic shoes with his little gold buckle, his matching white belt, and his lime green golf slacks. He was immaculate -- not a speck of dirt on him.
Standing there, gazing at all of them in the trench, he proceeded to deliver a motivational speech. Time has erased most of his text except for a separate single sentence that Gordon said lingered in his memory for 20 years. "Laborers," he declared, "you are the backbone of the construction industry."
Mr. Gordon continued, "Today I know this was positive feedback. No doubt this positive feedback is a wonderful thing to give to folks, if you want them to dig holes faster and deeper. The sales manager intended for his pep talk to show us laborers that we were appreciated. He meant to boost our self-esteem that we might dig our hole proudly and tar our wall with glad hearts. He meant to motivate us and he did.
This caused in all three of us a powerful desire to beat him with our shovels and bury him in the ditch. This guy's feedback attempt backfired because it was patronizing."
Twenty years later, here is Gordon's advice about positive feedback: "If you are sitting in an air-conditioned office, wearing a classy sport coat and haven't a spec of dirt on you, and you notice some people digging a trench and you get an urge to wander out there and boost their morale, don't preach to them, just take along some cold drinks, place them on the edge of the trench, smile, say thanks and walk away."