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Encouragement: a Little Bit Goes a Long Way

On any given day, we have opportunities to encourage others. We also have ample opportunities to discourage others. Our responses and words are powerful when we make these choices to be encouraging or discouraging. Because we are wielding so much power, we may need to consider what we’re doing and take it seriously. But instead, we often speak without thinking and never realize the consequences of our chosen words. What’s more, it may be what we don’t say that has an impact on others.

To encourage is defined as “to stimulate by assistance or approval” or “to inspire with courage, spirit or confidence.” The words embolden, hearten, reassure, urge, support, aid and help are all synonymous with encourage.

By contrast, to discourage means “to deprive of courage or hope, to dishearten, to dissuade” or “to express or make clear disapproval of, to frown upon.” Synonyms for discourage include dishearten, deject and depress.

That’s a pretty stark contrast. And the impact suggested within these definitions is no small matter. But despite the implied importance of our response to others, we seldom consider whether we will encourage or discourage someone by what we say or do.

It’s not that we’re unable to be encouraging. Watch any family member when a baby is first learning to walk. The encouragement is evident and over-the-top. Smiles, applause, coaxing, and celebration accompany this achievement.

Something changes as we get older. People are less inclined to be encouraging in the same way even though it’s likely that we adults need encouragement much more than a baby does. With or without encouragement, babies learn to walk. But later in life, there are so many steps we do not take because we aren’t encouraged to do so.

Needing encouragement does not make you needy. I’m a high functioning professional who is very self-sufficient. Currently, I am writing a book series. I got a strong start and, in fact, decided to become an author because I was encouraged by others who asked me to write a book as a follow-on to training. I’ve been working on my books for several months and, frankly, I feel discouraged at times.

What is it that is depriving me of my courage? No one has said, “You can’t” or, “You shouldn’t.” No one has frowned upon the ideas or the content. I am discouraged only because I haven’t been encouraged. I’m finding it difficult to justify the time required when I am so strongly encouraged to attend to other work projects and family activities. And the longer it takes to get back to book writing, the more disheartened I get.

In the workplace, I see the same pattern. People are encouraged to focus on the latest, greatest, newest projects. No one directly discourages them from doing their routine work well or from focusing on things like personal development. But it’s the imbalance of encouragement that takes them away from those less visible or less timely focus areas. Without any encouragement, a feeling of discouragement can creep in to erode the confidence and commitment levels.

There is a fairly common sentiment expressed by managers that essentially says, “I shouldn’t have to give pats on the heads to adults.” In fact, many hiring managers believe that finding people who are self-motivated somehow relieves them of the responsibility of encouraging their employees. There’s another school of thought that suggests that praising or encouraging people too often will somehow spoil them, that they need to do highly exceptional work to earn words of praise or encouragement.

Both of these mindsets result in managers withholding praise from employees. It has the same result in families where parents feel this way. Withholding praise or encouragement may make some people work harder to try and gain favor. But there is a high cost associated with this strategy – people who are desperate for praise will look for it in other places and when they find it, they will resent not hearing it at home or in the current workplace. Giving encouragement is, in fact, essential to healthy relationships. John Gottman’s research suggests that a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative comments is the minimum in a happy marriage. Workplace research suggests a minimum of 3 encouraging comments to every 1 corrective comment. Overlooking or deliberately withholding encouragement makes it difficult to reach these minimums.

Of course, there are times when discouragement goes beyond a lack of encouragement. It can be subtle and unintentional – a raised eyebrow, a lack of interest, a “yeah but” redirection, or an implication that someone else would be better suited to the work – all can be disheartening. Clear discouragement that is meant to dissuade someone or to show disapproval of their plans is more obvious. But that doesn’t mean it is intentional.

How many times have you said something that is disapproving because you were speaking in the heat of the moment? Perhaps you disapproved of the timing or sequence or approach… Without meaning to, you gave feedback that was over-reaching and ended up being discouraging. Notice the difference in these two statements:

“You’ve made a great start on this project, and I can see we’ve got the right person in place for getting this done. I’d like to offer a suggestion that you focus on this aspect before taking it before the full team.” vs. “You’re not ready to take this to the team. There’s a huge gap in this project, and you’ll get nailed on it if you try and sell these ideas with what you’ve got.”

Both statements are true. It’s easy to see which one will be encouraging and which one will be discouraging.  It’s also easy to understand why the second statement might be made. The initial reaction and associated emotions could cause a manager to say this without considering the impact on the employee.  The result, of course, is that the employee has to overcome feelings of discouragement in order to proceed. Had the manager chosen the first statement, the same employee would be buoyed by the encouragement and more likely to positively dive in and finish the work right away. The time for coaching and correction could come later in a “lessons learned” review of the project.

The root of encouragement is courage. As you go through your day and interact with others, consider whether you need to bolster courage or diminish their courage. Let that steer what you say and how you react to them. A little encouragement goes a long way.

CONNECT 2 Lead graphic smalAs a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And subscribe to our weekly CONNECT2Lead Newsletter for special offers, content, and blog