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Kelly Odell

- A blog for leaders
15 Dec 2016

Misunderstanding motivation: The dangers of “un-couragement”

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Examples of un-couragement I have heard recently:

A teacher said to a 7th grade student “I am giving you an “A” because I couldn’t come up with a reason not to”.

Another teacher said to the entire class, “I am not going to give anyone an “A” so you have an incentive to work hard next semester”.

A manager who told an employee: “I know I am not good at giving praise, but I am very good at giving criticism, so if you haven’t heard anything it is a good sign.

Another manager told me that he tries to avoid giving praise to high performers because they will just turn around and use it against him in salary discussions.

Do you see examples of “un-couragement” in your organizations?

Some might argue that most people are good at giving encouragement and that I am only presenting negative examples. I hope that is true. I hope I have just had the bad fortune to bump into a few bad examples in close proximity to each other. But for us to view these examples of what I often call “un-couragement” as anomalies or exceptions, they would have to be very rare. Even if these examples of un-couragement are less frequent than real encouragement they may still be frequent enough to be a problem.

I suspect that we are all at risk of unintentionally practicing un-couragement more often that we might think. As we get caught up in our daily lives we forget how important our reactions to the small incremental achievements of our children, colleagues, and employees really are. We may underestimate the value of a pat on the back or just a simple “well done”.

It is probably fair to assume that these practitioners of un-couragement have good intentions. I doubt that they want to undermine their student’s or their employee’s self-confidence or motivation. Somehow, despite their best intentions, what they believe to be encouragement comes out all wrong. This is really the essence of un-couragement, there is no ill will intended in un-couragement, quite the opposite. It is the effects our un-couragement has on the other person, not our intentions that define the concept of un-couragement.
The most striking thing for me is that this is not a question of giving criticism to underperformers, a task that can be quite difficult. This is a question of giving or not giving encouragement to people who perform well. Giving criticism may even be harder than receiving it, but giving encouragement ought to be the easiest thing in the world.


Tips for moving from un-couraging to encouraging:

  1. If you want to encourage someone, keep in mind that it is not about you. It is not about demonstrating what a great leader or teacher you are. While you certainly have an impact on your employees’, students’ and children’s performance it is ultimately their performance, not yours. You are supporting them on their journey, they are not supporting you on yours.


  1. Focus on “being” encouraging. Encouragement isn’t a question what you say or do at formal meetings twice a year. It is about how you are every day. And sometimes you don’t “have” to do anything. As the popular song by Alison Krauss says, “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”.


  1. Don’t be afraid to give criticism when it is necessary but if you find that you spend more time criticizing than encouraging then you are probably doing it wrong. And don’t fall for that old advice of wrapping criticism up in positive statements. The sandwich method doesn’t work. A sandwich made of spoiled lunch meat is a bad sandwich no matter how good the bread is.


  1. When you give encouragement, make it real and unqualified with no reservations. Avoid “you did a good job and if you just do this one little thing you will be even better”. Just say it was a good job and an example of why you thought so.


  1. Remember that sometimes the best thing to do is just stay out of the way (but be available). Your presence and your interest can be all the encouragement that is needed. 

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