Several years ago, a friend invited me to run a half marathon in Nashville, TN. I hesitantly agreed and began to prepare. A few weeks later, my friend decided not to run after all; I was left training alone. The weekend before the race, I set off on a ten-mile run, my final training exercise before the big event. For reasons I still can’t fully explain, I chose to tackle this run at the local high school track—40 laps all by myself. Needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience. I finished . . . barely.
The next week, I found myself standing alongside 20,000 others at the starting line in Nashville, totally unsure of what to expect. The race started, and for the next hour and forty-seven minutes I experienced something truly amazing. The street was lined with people cheering us on. Not knowing my name, strangers along the way shouted the phrase on my t-shirt to encourage me specifically, fueling me for a few more steps. From start to finish, the encouraging atmosphere filled my mind with a clear message: “You’ve trained for this! You’re doing it! Push through the pain . . . finish strong!” Adrenaline was pumping, the energy was electric, and I felt like I could run forever. I crossed the finish line well ahead of my two-hour goal time. I felt so full of life that I spent the remainder of the morning cheering on the marathoners as they came down the home stretch. The encouragement I had received was contagious and I felt compelled to share it with others!
True encouragement reinforces positive behavior, creates energy and momentum, and gives courage for the completion of a challenging task. Like race day in Nashville, teams and leaders who encourage one another create an environment in which people outperform expectations and feel more fulfilled in the process.
Here are four things to remember as you focus on encouragement within your team:
- Everyone needs encouragement. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, was known to ask, “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they are breathing!” Life happens daily; it’s more like a marathon than we often realize as we travel from day to day. Everyone needs to be encouraged, and encouragement received at mile one is long forgotten by mile thirteen. Make ongoing encouragement a common practice and then watch your team come alive.
- It has to be consistent. If you spend most of your time criticizing and questioning others, a few encouraging comments won’t do much good. Encouragement that is scarce will come across as disingenuous and do little, if anything, to improve performance or morale. Fiercely pursue opportunities to encourage and make it a regular part of your interaction with the team.
- Be specific in encouraging others. The most powerful encouragement is that which is targeted and specific. Seek out a particular individual or group and affirm an idea, attitude, or behavior that is serving the team well. Look for someone in the midst of a challenging project and inspire him/her to press on with confidence. Specific encouragement shows others you believe in them and what they have to offer. It feels authentic and builds trust in the team. And trust, as we will see in a few weeks, is the foundation on which all lasting results are built.
- Encourage others in the way that is helpful for them. Everyone is different. Some team members will be more impacted by a handwritten note, while others will prefer an uplifting word. (It can be even more powerful in a public setting.). The key here is actually knowing the other members of the team. You can’t encourage someone according to their preference if you don’t know what that preference is.
Developing a culture of meaningful encouragement is vital to the life of a team; however, like any other skill, it takes practice. This week, find a way every day to encourage someone on your team. You may find your actions become contagious!