Acknowledging and Encouraging

Most leaders genuinely intend to manage people well. Unfortunately, many of them fail to engage and motivate others. Why? I believe it’s because you can’t just hope to be a good leader; you have to consistently practice proven leader behaviors.

As I’ve been discussing in my last several blogs, there are a set of directive and supportive behaviors leaders can employ to help both people and their organization thrive.  We call these leader behaviors SLII® micro skills.

Of all the supportive SLII® behaviors, my favorite is Acknowledging and Encouraging. If I could only use one management tool for the rest of my life, it would be this:  Catch People Doing Things Right.

Acknowledging Is a Learned Skill

Too often people feel they are working in a vacuum, because no matter how well they perform, nobody notices. Or, if their manager notices, they make overly general comments, such as, “I appreciate your efforts” or “thanks for the good job.” While that’s better than saying nothing, it doesn’t do a whole lot to motivate the person or help that person feel valued.

Do it quickly and in detail. For acknowledgment to be effective, it needs to be immediate and specific. When you notice a job well done, tell the person as soon as possible exactly what they did right. For example:

“When I was called away last week and couldn’t lead the department meeting, you stepped up, asked me for the agenda, and led the team through each item.”

State your feelings. Next, tell the person how what they did impacted you. Don’t intellectualize. State your gut feelings:

“We didn’t miss a single deliverable. I felt so relieved and supported. You made me and the whole department look good. Thank you!”

Notice how much more effective that is than merely saying, “Thanks. Good job.”

To Encourage, Try Praising People

I ask audiences all the time: “How many of you are sick and tired of all the praisings you get at work?” Everybody laughs, because to most of us, praising does not come naturally. Thousands of years of evolution have wired our brains to search for what isn’t right: Is that a stick on the trail or a venomous snake? Is the wind moving that bush or is it a bear? Our tendency to focus on what isn’t right is a protective mechanism. Unfortunately, it makes us more likely to catch each other doing things wrong.

Take marriage, for example. When you first fall in love, your partner can do no wrong. But after a time you notice what bugs you and you start saying things like, “I can’t believe you could make such a stupid mistake!” Far from motivating your partner, comments like these discourage and shut them down.

Praise, on the other hand, is inherently motivating. Research has shown that praise triggers the hypothalamus and releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical in our brains.

Being close counts. You don’t have to wait for exactly the right behavior before praising someone. Even if a person is doing something approximately right, it’s important to recognize their effort.

Suppose your child is just learning to speak and you want to teach him to say, “Give me a glass of water, please.” If you wait until he says the whole sentence before you give him any water, your kid is going to die of thirst! So you start off by saying, “Water! Water!” And when your kid says “waller,” you jump up and down, kiss the boy, and get Grandma on the phone so she can hear him say “waller.” It isn’t “water” but at this stage, you praise him anyway.

You don’t want your kid going into a restaurant at age 21 and asking for a glass of waller, so after a while you only accept the word “water” and then you start on “please.”

Think of encouragement in the same way. In the beginning, catch people doing things approximately right. As their skills develop, gradually move them toward higher levels of competence.

A Positive Cycle

The importance of acknowledging people’s efforts and encouraging their progress cannot be overstated. These leader behaviors set up a positive cycle: Your praise helps people feel good about themselves. People who feel good about themselves produce good results—and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.

So generate some positive energy and help people reach their full potential. Catch people doing things right!