The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. – Eliezer Wiesel
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also called MLK Day, an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. King was the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. While most of us could not describe his actions during the Civil Rights Movement, almost everyone can remember some of the things he said. His words became as important to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement as the marches and protests were. Words are significant.
When I was in first grade, I wanted to be an engineer. In kindergarten I wanted to be a fireman, but that was because they brought the firetruck to school and we got to sit in the driver’s seat and make the lights and sirens work. Anybody would want to be a fireman after that, but for the rest of my youth, I wanted to be an engineer. So that is what I became, and it would be easy to say I succeeded because I studied and worked hard and invested myself in learning engineering (which I did.) That would be a partial truth. I succeeded because I was surrounded by people who told me I could.
If you are like many people, you can recall a moment in your life when a person said words to you that changed the way you saw yourself. Some of you just thought of a teacher or mentor or parent who told you that you were smart or talented or kind or capable, and it made you beam with pride and also made you want to be that all the more. Some of you thought about a teacher or parent or authority or peer who called you worthless or lazy or ugly or stupid, and you still struggle today to see yourself without that label being visible, however faint it has become.
Recently at an OK Ethics luncheon, I had the privilege or hearing Ken Parker, CEO/Co-Founder at NextThought, speak on the topic of “The Role of Technology in Shaping Minds.” Ken’s main point was that the most valuable thing we possess is our attention. He equated attention with life experience and then quoted Henry David Thoreau who said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.”
This is one of the reasons that words are so powerful. When we give people our attention by noticing them and telling them the things we see, they intuitively know we are spending a valuable resource on them. Because of this, we must be careful what we say–stingy with harsh words and generous with kind ones. I could write many pages on the damage caused by unkind and hurtful words (even if they were unintended.) However, today we are focused on the words that show people we care.
Leaders who care, Nurture People With Encouraging Words. This means noticing, identifying, and verbalizing the positive choices people make that align with the company’s mission and strategy. There is a lot in that sentence, so let’s unpack it…
Noticing, Identifying and Verbalizing: Remember the attention thing? It’s hard to notice and identify what people are doing without paying attention to them. It is hard to tell them that you are proud of what they are doing without giving them some attention. If we care about people, we pay attention to them. If we care about people, we spend life on them.
Choices: For words to be encouraging in healthy ways, they need to be related to things we control and things we choose. Telling someone they have great eyes is nice, but most of our physical attributes are outside of our control. When we give people verbal attention for things they do have control over, it confirms for them a choice they made and encourages them to continue on that path.
Aligned With Mission and Strategy: You can certainly praise someone for just about anything positive they have done, but when we see people doing things that are consistent with our culture and community, we have the opportunity to reinforce those things for that person and for the group.
For encouraging words to be effective, we need to identify the choice a person made, relate the impact it had on us personally and on the team, and connect it to something we value individually or as a group. “John, I was really excited to see your report on the research you have been doing. I can already see how this data will improve our process for matching customer needs to our product offerings. This will definitely make a difference in the customer experience and make our product teams’ jobs smoother.
We can encourage people for choices they have already made, but we can also encourage people for choices we see them making in the future. This “predictive” encouragement is often the kind we remember when we think about the people in our past who have been impactful. Many of us had a parent, teacher, or other adult who spoke into our lives about what we were capable of and would accomplish in the future. Predictive encouragement is very important when people are struggling.
Finally, we can encourage people even when we are correcting them. It is a rare thing (like unicorn rare) for someone to be 100% in the wrong. When we have to correct someone, we should include things that are right, too. Telling someone what is wrong without telling them what is right, or how to make it right, is frustrating and ineffective. This is a good time to use predictive encouragement.
So, our encouragement can be reactive, predictive, or corrective. It also needs to be varied in the way we give it. Praise should almost always be public; correction should always be private. In addition to face-to-face communication, we can use phone calls, emails, texts, and handwritten notes. These days, a handwritten note sent to the person’s home (so their family can see it, too) is significant because it costs more “life” for you to do, making it more valuable.
The leader who is generous with encouragement will see several things happen in their community. Encouragement causes everyone to be uplifted and creates a more positive environment. The finite reserve capacity of team members is restored, recharged, and filled up. This, is turn, makes the community more resilient. Additionally, you get more of what you praise. Encouragement is the fertilizer necessary for healthy individual and community growth.
Before you can encourage the people you serve with your words, you must truly believe that people have intrinsic and equal value–and you must love and care for them. Leaders that care for people spend their valuable attention on them. When we spend our life on someone else, our words become deeds, and that is The Kimray Way.