Monday, May 21, 2012

Manager Mondays: Believe They Can Reach for the Stars

Welcome to Manager Mondays, a series about workforce messaging.  I started this series to give practical tips on how to talk to employees effectively.  

There's a lot of bad workforce messaging out there. What about yours?  Is how you're saying what you're saying keeping your staff from hearing it?  Keep reading these Monday posts for ideas on how to modify your memos and revolutionize your remarks, so that you can inspire performance by making every communication a relationship-building opportunity.  (And if you're new to this blog, use the Blog Archive on the right to search back for older posts in this series.)

This week the topic is the essence of true encouragement.  

One of my personal core philosophies for workforce communication is "Aim, don't blame."  In other words, instead of complaining about what people are doing wrong, give them a clear idea of how you want them to do it right, and the tools to do it -- including your belief in their power to succeed.   And that's where encouragement comes in.

If you're not an intentional encourager, your employees will:

  • tend to tune you out.
  • suspect your motives.
  • give you less-than-optimal performance.
  • engage in passive sabotage.  
Encouragement is key.  But true encouragement has to come from a real place.  

The movie October Sky tells the story of rocket scientist Homer Hickam, who grew up in rural Coalwood, West Virginia.   In one scene, his high school principal reprimands his science teacher for encouraging her students to dream beyond a life in the coal mines.  She stands up to him, declaring that she needs to believe that they can make a better life for themselves: "I have to, or I'd go out of my mind." 

That's me, too. I believe in the person sitting in the learner's seat. I believe in his or her potential to rise above.  On the job, I believe that when people learn to perform their work with increased competence, it will lead to greater personal  fulfillment and professional opportunities. 

Do you believe that about the workers you lead?  Do you regard them as people in process?  Do you accept that you can be a catalyst for betterment in their lives?

I have a friend whom I'll call Theresa.  We were introduced a few years ago by another friend of mine, Elaine, who is a social worker.  Theresa had come to her office depressed and desperate.   She had no job, no money, and an upcoming court appearance on a felony charge.  She struggled to take care of her two small girls. She had been physically abused by their father - at one point he beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized - but she still let him freeload at her house whenever he needed to crash.  

Elaine saw something in Theresa.  She told me, "Beth, this woman is ready to move on and make changes.  She just needs some encouragement."  Elaine wanted me to believe that Theresa could reach for the stars.

I took Theresa out to lunch and we bonded immediately as I listened to her story. Her life had been rocky, spent shuttled between foster care and relatives.  Her opportunities had been few.  Yet she still had a spark of determination.  We talked about faith, family, and the future. Theresa showed me pictures of her daughters -- charming faces, bright smiles, cute outfits --  then she looked me in the eye and told me, "I want to break the cycle."

In the years since, Theresa and I have inspired each other.  She's in a much better place now.  She kicked out the ex, got a job as a health care aide, and is on the road to a better career. Most of all, she continues to fight for her children's stability and education. It's a lonely road sometimes, but she's staying on it.

Theresa has given me the gift of her friendship and a window on her world of hardship and fragile hopes.  I've seen her confront and conquer the dark forces that try to pull her backwards, and I've been humbled by her spirit. Most of all, I've come to revere that spark of hope and determination that I saw when I met her, and recognize its glimmer in others.  

Being that it's May, there are seedlings on my kitchen windowsill.  Basil, squash, zinnias -- the life force inside each tiny seed causes it to reach for the sun and grow into a strong plant.   I believe that inside each human being there's a similar intrinsic desire to reach for the stars, to thrive and contribute to the well-being of the next generation.  Sometimes it gets frozen by neglect and abuse, but give it just a little dollop of the right soil, and the spark still ignites and reaches for the light.  

If you lead people on the job, can you see them in this way?  And can you see yourself as a steward of their yearning for the stars?   

Your job as manager may be to get the optimum level of work from your underlings -- but your role as manager goes far beyond that.  You are a key player in the lives of those who report to you.  Their fragile hopes for a better life are mostly invested in the activity they do for you, day in and day out.  Can you find the words to encourage their spark?  Can you help them find meaning and magnificence in their work, however mundane or menial?

To the degree that you can beckon forth your people's desire for betterment, and link it to skill-building on the job, you will gift them with permanent assets that will help each one break his or her own cycle of negativity.  Your encouragement can help them defy the gravity of their own previous poor choices. Your praise can help them turn their momentary positive impulses into habitual, productive behaviors.  And in the process, they will become more valuable employees.

Homer Hickam progressed from being a little coal-town kid to a leading force in NASA's aerospace engineering program.  He went on to train astronauts for shuttle missions.  His science teacher would never have imagined to what degree her influence would end up transforming his life.  

What will your influence empower your employees to achieve?  How will your presence in their present fuel their future?

I would like to encourage you to start to speak encouragement into the lives of those who are entrusted to you at your workplace.  Help them improve on the job, not just for the purpose of reaching your business targets, but for the sake of empowering their own best destinies.  Be the booster rocket that helps them break the cycle.  As you do so, you will ingrain new purpose into your own professional growth and personal mission.

True encouragement starts with believing in a person's possibilities, and caring enough to tell them so.  

May we all aim for those stars together.

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