Early in my career, I (Rip) worked for a very demanding boss.
I do not say this in a negative sense of the word. Rather, he was tough in that he had very high standards and expected a high level of performance from everyone on his team. When he praised you, you knew you had hit the mark dead center. His praise was timely, specific, and – very often – public. He let you and your team know exactly what you did that was great, and why it was great.
The result? He consistently received outstanding performance from all of us. We wanted that praise and we were willing to work for it – not just as individuals, but collaboratively as a team. He stoked our professional pride. He encouraged our hearts.
Encourage the Heart
“Encourage the Heart” is the last of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® that James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner define in their classic work The Leadership Challenge. To encourage people’s hearts, leaders need to recognize contributions and celebrate values and victories.
My early boss did that for us. He recognized contributions and celebrated victories through positive feedback that was both personal and powerful. He understood Kouzes and Posner’s observation, “When people tell us about their ‘most meaningful recognition,’ they consistently report that it’s personal. They say that it feels special. You get a lot more emotional bang for your buck when you make recognition and rewards personal.”
That being said, recognition and rewards take myriad forms. My boss offered individual comments to us. For other leaders I have known, praise and celebration have taken the shape of parties, announcements, newsletter stories, special events, job perks, and more. The key is that leaders recognize contributions and celebrate victories in an authentic and appropriate manner.
- Authentic, in that they are not “putting on a show” or “going through the motions.”
- Appropriate, in that the recognition or celebration aligns with the accomplishment.
For example, holding a casual pizza party to honor a team that worked backbreaking hours for three months to meet a critical deadline would be insulting. It is not appropriate; their effort deserves more than that.
This brings us to one of Kouzes and Posner’s fascinating and challenging statements: “Encouragement is, curiously, serious business because it’s how you visibly and behaviorally link rewards with performance.” To put it another way, great leaders make encouragement their business and take it seriously.
Unfortunately, in our experience, Encouraging the Heart is one of the most undeveloped and underutilized leadership skills. Too many leaders either aren’t willing to take the time to think about who has accomplished something praiseworthy and then recognize or reward it, or they assume that it is a person’s job to give good performance and therefore it is not necessary to recognize or reward it. Both perspectives are counterproductive because they cause leaders to consistently miss opportunities to improve the motivation, commitment, energy, and morale of their team members.
As a leader, you should take Encouraging the Heart as seriously as you do communicating goals, managing change, solving issues, executing plans, and all the rest of your responsibilities. It should not be an afterthought or an add-on if you have time – as with everything in life and on the job. If you don’t make Encouraging the Heart a priority, you will never have the time.
Before you think, “Oh no; not another task on my never-ending list,” bear in mind that Encouraging the Heart is one of the most enjoyable responsibilities you have as a leader! After all, there are plenty of things you have to do that are unpleasant, such as putting out yet another unexpected fire or stepping into a simmering situation to resolve a conflict before it explodes. When you Encourage the Heart, you get to tell people that they are doing a great job, plan a party as the finishing touch to a successful project, or select a reward that will make someone thrilled that they work for you. Wouldn’t that be enjoyable? Wouldn’t it be a bright spot in your day?
Kouzes and Posner write, “When leaders bring people together, rejoice in collective successes, and directly display their gratitude, they reinforce the essence of community. Being personally involved makes it clear that everyone is committed to making extraordinary things happen.” You want to do everything in your power to make extraordinary things happen. Begin today by taking up the leadership challenge to Encourage the Heart!