I hope it’s not indicative of our recent past, but the Index to the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations doesn’t list a single entry for ‘encouragement’. OK, so that doesn’t mean no-one had a good word (as opposed to a merely appropriate one) for anyone else for a hundred consecutive years, but the lack of anything the editors considered memorable is quite worrying. Goethe may have observed that “Correction does much, but encouragement does more” a century earlier, but has human nature changed that drastically since?

While I’m conscious that our remarks about carrots and sticks have attracted comment elsewhere, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in carrots anymore. There may be a whiff of biblical retribution about the cliché, but we do generally reap what we sow: if all you plant is sticks, well …

The flipside, of course, is that encouragement can lead to an undesirable glut. As people mostly respond favourably to encouragement, there is a responsibility on us to encourage only what is actually desirable. While the Christmas Season isn’t usually a time for spurring each other to discriminate carefully, I think the responsibility inherent in encouraging others come through clearly in PG Wodehouse’s comment:

My only objection to the custom of giving books as Christmas presents is perhaps the selfish one that it encourages and keeps in the game a number of writers who would be far better employed if they abandoned the pen and took to work.”

The lack of quotes in the Oxford Dictionary might be disquieting, but “Don’t – you’ll only encourage them” is still good advice, provided your judgment is sound.

Carpet-bombing the world with praise is not, in any case, encouragement: it’s empty praise at (debatable) best, and flattery at worst. And quite a few of us are perfectly well aware that flattery often comes hand-in-smiling-hand with deceit. While it’s mildly uplifting to realise someone else figured we were worthy enough of their time and attention for them to waste some of it flattering us, most of us would recognise the wisdom in one of Adlai Stevenson’s quip:

I suppose flattery hurts no one, that is, if he doesn’t inhale.”

But there’s a crucial difference between hollow flattery and genuine appreciation. Providing a steady dripfeed of constructive comments on our friends’ and partners’ ability to cook dinner or iron shirts might improve their ability to appear crisply presented as they host dinner parties, but encouragement and appreciation are probably more likely to give them the confidence. (And more likely to result in us being invited to attend.) Ovid shows that this is probably timeless advice:

The spirited horse, which will try to win the race of its own accord, will run even faster if encouraged.”

When it comes to managing and improving the performance of others, there is a danger that cultural habits – both societal and institutional – will tempt too many managers to unthinkingly take all the praise out of appraisal. A powerful posting at the blog 99% – Behold the Power of Appreciations – quotes American storyteller Jay O’Cahallan’s observation: 

It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses. When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.”

The tendency to criticise first can even mean we approach any kind of appraisal or review expecting only criticism. I was recently one of a party at a College’s Training Restaurant – a public facility where trainee chefs cook and provide front-of-house, under the watchful eye of tutors and assessors. The meal was fine – one or two minor errors of judgement, but better than many meals cooked by experienced chefs that have cost me far more – although the service was a little over-attentive. At the end of the meal, our chef for the evening came to our table and politely asked for our criticisms. Naturally, he received a few – the meal was very good, but not perfect – but, as many of my companions that evening work in education or training & development, we offered (deserved) words of praise too. But we did reflect afterwards that the ‘format’ seemed to encourage us to point out what was wrong, and to gloss over some real highlights.

In the context of what was in reality an educational centre rather than a restaurant – we were their coursework more than their customers – this seemed unfortunate. Maybe the world has moved on since Anatole France expressed the opinion that ‘Nine tenths of education is encouragement’ but, if we do ultimately get what we encourage, it does help to have the opportunity to actually do the encouraging.

There’s a larger lesson too. One reason that much learning and development activity delivers less than anticipated is that people are not rewarded or recognised for applying or implementing their learning or new behaviours – or encouraged as they progress towards them. Not only does this reduce the impact – and the return on investment – of L&D activity, it reduces employee engagement and undermines talent retention.

If you’re not getting what you want out of others, what are you (whether it be implicitly or explicitly) encouraging in them and their behaviour? If you’re not offering appreciation, recognition or encouragement, what messages are they receiving? That some aspects of their contribution don’t deserve detailed criticism? That appreciation isn’t on the agenda – or the cards? Or that you’re not even paying attention.

There’s a quote from Robert Cavett, American motivational speaker, that’s been widely adopted across the Internet: 

Three billion people on the face of the earth go to bed hungry every night, but four billion people go to bed every night hungry for a simple word of encouragement and recognition.”

He might have been speaking as a man who sold encouragement for a living, but he still had a good point.

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