Posted by: bevmeldrum | December 15, 2009

Encouraging a Culture of Encouragement

One of the Third Sector organisations I’ve done some work with recently is facing a real challenge in terms of their leader. Their leader just can’t give a compliment.

I spoke to one member of staff that had been there nearly 5 years and they could only remember the leader complimenting them on their work 2 or 3 times in that period. Any compliments tended to get followed quickly by criticism.

Even in the ‘What Are the Candidate’s Strengths?’ section in job references this leader would write a positive comment, and then in the same sentence follow it with ‘but …’ and then proceed to share their insights into the negative characteristics of their team member – all within the ‘strengths’ section!

Why does the leader do this? In this case, it seems they just don’t realise the power of encouraging staff, and instead see their role as one of highlighting weaknesses and giving criticism. To them, the way to grow a staff team is to criticise so that the staff can develop and improve and get it right next time.

What Happens When We Don’t Encourage

A leader that just doesn’t encourage their staff will find that there’s often not much trust or faith in their leadership. The staff follow the leader because of the position they hold not because of their belief in the individual leader. When a leader doesn’t encourage, staff feel discouraged.

The example of this particular Third Sector organisation is a case in point. Trained professionals, with years of experience on the job, were left feeling like they had lost all their confidence. Their belief that they were able to do a good job, that they had found their calling was gone – they just had no evidence that the leader thought they were doing ok, let alone doing well. None of the staff team were growing in their roles or personally, in fact, they seemed to be going backwards in terms of their self-confidence and their professional development.

What Happens When We Do Encourage

One of the reasons it’s good to encourage others is that it is just a good thing to build people up and celebrate their achievements – it just makes sense. If you build staff up then you can expect to see their commitment to and faith in the leader grow. Teams are built this way – if they are encouraged to encourage then a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ follows soon after.

Individuals are built in this way. Growth in an individual comes from encouragement followed by a challenge to develop further. How sad for organisations where staff leave either as the same person they were when they starterd, or a shadow of their former self due to a lack of encouragement from their leader.

As an employer one of your aims, surely should be, to enable each member of staff to grow and develop into a better, more capable, more skilled person during their time with you?

Of course leaders have to be sincere in their encouragements – staff will quickly spot any meaningless and empty words.

Encouraging Encouragement

If I was working with the leader in the organisation mentioned I would encourage them to say something encouraging to each member of staff, each day. They could use a check-list to ensure they don’t forget anyone.

This would feel incredibly false to begin with, but very soon it would become a habit. It doesn’t mean that the leader would have to make sure they encourage each individual member of staff on a daily basis. Once they’ve got the hang of it they could cut it down. Although is that really such a bad thing, to make sure that as a leader, you encourage each member of staff daily?

At first it might be difficult to think what to say – so maybe a cheat sheet of phrases they could use would be a good idea:

  • “that is really good, thank you”
  • “you did a really great job on Thursday in that meeting”
  • “thank you for supporting me in that situation”

If the member of staff hadn’t done anything that day that could be commented on, I’d encourage the leader to think back to something that person had done recently that they hadn’t yet complimented them on.

  • “I was just thinking about the training you ran last month – the feedback was very positive, well done.”

Of course, all this assumes that the leader has recognised that they really do need to start encouraging their staff on a regular basis and are willing to learn how.

That isn’t always the case.

What do you do when you are working in an organisation where the leader refuses to encourage staff and instead only criticises?

Option 1: Leave – Do you really want to stay in a job where you are not growing and developing, and all that is said about your work is in the form of a criticism?

Option 2: Lead from the Middle – If you aren’t getting encouragement from above why not change the culture from within and start encouraging those around you, including the leader themselves. Maybe it will rub off on those above you.

John Maxwell calls this ‘leading from the middle’ of an organisation in his book 360 Degree Leader – a great book for anyone who wants to learn how to lead be a while not actually holding a leadership position.

Why not start encouraging the other staff you work with on a daily basis? Encourage them to encourage the others on the team. Regardless of the leader’s view on encouragement that doesn’t mean that you can’t fill that gap and ensure that your workplace is an encouraging, supportive and challenging place to be!


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