Encouragement, the Lost Art

Being a habitual encourager isn’t about sugarcoating the truth or being fake. It is about developing a warm, loving relationship that is super-prepared to handle constructive criticism.
In: Column, Encouragement

June 2, 2010

Humanoids are wired to need an occasional jolt of encouragement; it acts like a shot of adrenalin before a big game. I remember playing small college basketball. Thinking about that evening’s game would actually send a charge coursing through my body like 1,000,000 volts of electric current. The butterflies in my stomach would become huge, prehistoric mutants doing the River Dance. Now that Father Time has, with unrelenting persistence, eroded my physical skills and tempered my emotions, the peaks and valleys are less pronounced, but I still appreciate being encouraged.

When reading autobiographical accounts of successful people, I am struck by how many cite that just the right words at just the right time helped to propel them onward and upward; made them persevere just when they wanted to quit. Encouragement from a teacher; praise from a boss; a “you-can-do-it” pep talk from a parent; appreciation from a co-worker; a simple “thank you” from a customer—all can give an energy burst way more effective than a double Red Bull with a shot of espresso. Are you and I encouragers?

Being critical and expressing a contrary opinion seems to be the new American pastime. Fueled by game show judges and cable news arguments—not debates, arguments—we are programmed to tear down those different than us. Putting someone else down is the age-old way many build themselves up; the “put-down” masks our own doubts and shortcomings. It is easy to be critical because everyone makes mistakes. It is not so easy to become a habitual encourager.

Communication experts estimate people remember negative feedback 100 times more than positive feedback. Said another way, it takes 100 “Attaboys” or “Attagirls” to make up for one “You Dummy!” Countless workplace surveys and questionnaires show that appreciation for work well done is a huge motivator and contributes significantly to job satisfaction. Yet studies repeatedly show that managers are generally very poor at handing out encouragement and kudos.

“But,” says the driven leader, “We have to improve performance, and I have to give accurate feedback when people miss the mark.” Absolutely true! What the driver doesn’t realize is the field for improvement is prepared with 100 “attaboys.” Says the driver, “I shouldn’t have to thank people for doing their jobs—they’re adults just doing what is expected of them.” Wrong! All people need to feel appreciated and respected. At the very least constructive criticism should be served as a sandwich—smelly Limburger cheese surrounded by delicious hunks of bread. First, say something good, then give accurate, difficult feedback, and finish positively.

I love the slogan reflective of healthy organizational cultures: We try to catch people doing something right around here. Sometimes we have to mine for something positive to say. To the performer who didn’t quite hit the notes: “I loved your song choice. The words were so inspiring.” To the presenter who isn’t a good speaker: “I could tell you put a lot of time into that—thank you for your hard work.” To the player having a bad game:

“I could tell you gave it your all, Thanks for wanting it so badly.” To the direct report who made a big mistake and knows it: “I really appreciate your courage in going for it. You will learn much from this mistake, making you more valuable in the future.” Finding something positive to say may take concentrated thought, but encouragement is so rewarding!

Being a habitual encourager isn’t about sugarcoating the truth or being fake. It is about developing a warm, loving relationship that is super-prepared to handle constructive criticism. Encouragement doesn’t cost anything but a few brain cells; the potential impact is invaluable. You and I need to rediscover the lost art of encouragement.

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