Encouragement leads to courage

Guest contribution by | 20.05.2020

I’d like you to meet Pauline: She is 34 years old, practices yoga, works as a personnel officer in the Human Relations department, has successfully completed two courses of study and has been asking herself for days whether she should take up the offer to give a lecture at a major event. Normally Pauline is afraid of giving lectures to large groups. This time, however, the offer is tempting: She would have the chance to share and refine her thoughts on personnel development in a group of professional experts, as well as make new contacts and initiate cooperation opportunities. For the company, the impulses and contacts would be valuable for the further development of its consulting portfolio. Pauline hesitates and secretly wishes she were more courageous.

Courage, described as a value, competence or personality trait, manifests itself in visible behaviour or reflects an emotional state. Courage is sung about, placed on slogans, and cheats on articles and statements in both the digital and analogue world. For the design of possible futures, courage as Pauline wants it seems to be indispensable. In the corporate context, courage is therefore seen as one of the core competencies of leaders. However, the (self-imposed) demand to “be courageous” and to break new ground is sometimes not enough, as it seldom starts from social reality. Would a “be courageous” help Pauline after she has been thinking back and forth for days? And what does it look like for an entire company? 

What is the situation regarding courage in organisations?

Let’s take a look at a fictitious company. It acted as a late mover on the market and in recent years has attracted fewer and fewer customers for its products. Internal considerations often revolved around the word ” digitalisation”.

  • Should they go digital?
  • Could they react faster to the different customer needs with a digital strategy?

A consulting firm should look into these questions when developing a strategy. Once the strategy was in place, management expressed concerns, for example that the risk could not be calculated in detail. They wanted to know if there were any examples that could demonstrate the success of the strategy. Many questions were raised, to which were added other uncertain factors that prevented the implementation of the strategic direction and ended without a happy end for the company. The company’s level of courage as a late mover was consequently less pronounced than that of a start-up, so that the opportunity to take a reorientation and get started was lost. The demand to “be courageous” had no effect, because the desire to control the unpredictable and to be able to calculate the risky decision with decimal places erases the courage to innovate in this equation.

Courage is a competence

As the company example shows, the management was unable to secure the future viability of the company due to a lack of courage. Dealing with uncertainty, high dynamics, complexity and ambiguity depends on the actions of the people involved. In this context, the competence courage as the willingness to take risks, to make (unpopular) decisions, to get involved in something new or to express contrary views plays a major role.

It can be vital for companies to promote courageous behaviour among their employees. The Harvard Business Managers Special concisely sums this up in its title “A booklet on the most important characteristic of managers – courage”. Leaders should be courageous and encourage. This is not only about strategic progress, but also about the effects on the personal level. So that on the one hand employees like Pauline dare to take the next step and on the other hand are courageous enough to open their mouths, e.g. to raise objections or point out undesirable developments. Even Drucker knew: “If there is a quick consensus on an important matter, the decision is not made.”1 In this context, courage has an influence on the ability of each individual and the entire company to react, learn and adapt to changing markets and competitive conditions.

The call for an error and feedback culture

According to a study by the Harvard Business Manager and the German Association for Professional and Managerial Staff (Verbands für Fach- und Führungskräfte (DFK)), courage is regarded as a core competence by the people questioned from management, but around ¼ of the people questioned are afraid to make mistakes and fear sanctions.2

A culture of error and feedback is often called for in order to create learning spaces for diverse opinions, resonance and trial-and-error guided action. Then a lab is installed, the last Friday of the month is proclaimed as Innovation Day, the failed projects are celebrated in the company newsletter or feedback sessions are postulated, which sometimes are more an assessment of behaviour and performance. It is known from innovation research that, for example, fault tolerance, autonomy, trust and the ability to learn are factors that are conducive to the innovative ability of companies. Structural frameworks can therefore create spaces that strengthen courageous behaviour.

At the same time, as a leader, you can ask for open feedback in the team, but if, for example, the quality of the relationship between you and your colleagues is impaired, all the elements that give structure to the team will initially come to nothing, like a feedback round. Ask yourself: How easy is it for you to accept feedback if you have the feeling that the person giving feedback is not interested in your growth or accepts you despite your “weaknesses”? Or the other way round: Who do you like to get feedback from and why?

Regardless of this, feedback, whether sometimes packaged as praise or recognition, is backward-looking. Feedback, from a word construction point of view, refers to a situation in the past and can provide impulses for future actions. Encouragement is needed to take courage in moments when you or others have doubts about your task or your ability to accomplish it, or are uncertain about the next step.

The encouragement is aimed at future success. It starts where, for example, a Pauline doesn’t know whether she should give the lecture, or with the speaker who doesn’t get ahead with her newly developed educational format and is left hanging her head. The same applies to the project developer who, after the last rebuff from the boss, questions whether he should present his new idea to him at all. Or also with you, when you are perhaps thinking about changing jobs, as in the song “Should I stay or should I go now”. Exactly in these moments of hesitation, despair or giving up, in which no success has been shown yet. This is exactly when an encouragement can ask you to stay on or take the next step!

What does encouragement mean?

Encouragement simply means an enabling of courage. It gives a self [self encouragement] or another person [extraneous encouragement] a “push” to act and aims for growth and development. According to Theo Schoenacker, “the process of encouragement is to be defined as any sign of attention that encourages or boosts others or ourselves.“and leads us to believe “I can.”.

Based on this, we will examine two factors in more detail:

  • the interpretation or evaluation
  • and the effect.

Ultimately, the decisive factor in both self-excitement and extraneous encouragement is how the signs of attention are interpreted and evaluated by the individual. Frick describes this process as an encouragement or discouragement cycle: An encouraging impulse can lead to the person having a positive inner self-conversation and being more likely to take on a difficult task now than before. This confidence encourages one to try out the next step. If this leads to a feeling of success, the positive judgement about oneself is strengthened. One gains self-confidence, which in turn contributes to self encouragement for future situations. In a negative inner dialogue, for example, a failure can occur due to evasion or waiting, which reinforces the negative self-assumptions.Put simply, the discouragement or encouragement happens in the mind.

Two psychological phenomena are closely related to this approach. These are the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and the “Pygmalion effect”. The “self-fulfilling prophecy” reflects self-encouragement and discouragement. In the context of extraneous encouragement, the “Pygmalion effect” is significant, because what is attributed to another person leads to an influence on that person’s behavior. This trust is accompanied by a well-founded confidence in success. Already more than 150 years ago Johann Wolfgang von Goethe formulated very aptly in his Faust: “Treat people as if they were what they should be and you help them to become what they can be.” However, if you have less confidence in other people in your environment, your negative expectations can influence the behaviour of these people. This negative variation is called the “Golem Effect” and you may know the effect of these phenomena more than placebo or nocebo effect.

Can you recall a situation where somebody gave you credit for something that you doubted before? Did you succeed? Or of situations to the contrary? For example, what effects did this have on your commitment and involvement in corporate issues?

The types of encouragement

A “You can do it!” or a nod from you, is called direct encouragement. The action you take is directed at the activity of the person to be encouraged. A thumbs up is also a signal of approval and can have an encouraging effect. The psychologists Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler were able to show in a study that just believing in sayings such as “Good luck” or a “thumbs up” increases performance, because people believe that these gestures are more effective, at least in the short term.So the cowardly lion in “The Wizard of Oz” only believes in his courage when the Wizard presents him with a medal for it.

You yourself can experience the effect of a “thumbs up” with the help of a small group exercise: In a group, at least three people are sent outside and called in one after the other to complete a task. The task consists of stacking blocks in rows of 10. The other participants should not show any movement at first, in the second round they should nod or give a “thumbs up” signal and in the last round they should express verbal approval such as “Great, keep it up! The last signals of attention usually cause a burst of energy and make it clear how initial attempts can be positively reinforced. This form of direct encouragement is aimed at a counterpart. It is therefore a form of external encouragement through words and deeds.

In addition, there is also indirect encouragement, also called atmospheric encouragement, which describes a climate of growth. It goes hand in hand with a feeling of trust, an understanding of failure, acceptance of the imperfect and a view of development. It is precisely this climate that the 25% of people surveyed in the study by Harvard Business Managers and the German Association of Professional and Managerial Staff (DFK) missed. Rather, they felt a fear of making mistakes and being sanctioned for them. Other studies on courage in the workplace also stress the importance of not sanctioning mistakes but rather seeing them as learning opportunities and have shown that managers tend to avoid situations that require courage. Indirect encouragement creates the space for direct encouragement so that it reaches the other person at all and can develop effectively.

Ultimately, it is a matter of appreciative encouragement through trust in both the existing and the still dormant abilities of a person, as well as the development of a stable relationship. Because “success on the factual level is preceded by success on the relational level.”6 To exaggerate a little bit, I would like to refer to the Rosenthal experiment, where the supposedly intelligent rats enjoyed a more loving treatment by their students than the stupid rats and accordingly showed better performances. The attention to the rats and the confidence that the intelligent rats will find their way out of the labyrinth made the difference in this experiment.

Take it with humor

Confidence goes hand in hand with trust and has an effect on the relationship level. So does a characteristic that is not sufficiently important in the business world: humour. Humour and laughter are the “social lubricant”that attracts people and creates bonds between them. With a humorous view, challenges, criticism, failures are put into perspective and a healthy distance to oneself is created at the same time. This is precisely the aim of the statement “Take it with humour”, because laughing together, e.g. about a mishap, takes the seriousness out of it and rather encourages a renewed attempt. Be it an unachieved level in the latest Tower Defense game, a missed penalty kick, a missed presentation, a workshop that gets out of hand, or an idea rejected by the boss – dealing with these setbacks makes all the difference.

The gaming industry is counting on defeat to challenge you again and encourage you to “Now I want to know! After a sports accident, medical rehabilitation is also used to help you regain your physical fitness through your own efforts. The focus is on the renewed attempt, be it one or more, that lead to personal success.

Maybe there is another way for the rejected idea than via the boss, maybe the idea is still missing an aspect or only the connection with an existing product leads to its realisation. When writing texts, lines of text are discarded, shortened, rearranged or contents are deepened. The confrontation with the content of the text takes place even during the writing-free breaks, the idea matures further in thought and a eureka moment can dissolve (thinking) blockades.

Countless founders, inventors, writers, artists, athletes, innovators and people like you and me have suffered setbacks and experienced progress. The angle of attention determines what we focus our actions and experiences on. A humorous approach helps us to focus on the positive and to acknowledge what has been achieved without closing our eyes to our own share of failure.

With the awareness that mistakes and failures are part of life, one’s own self-esteem is maintained and not tied to making things right. You have not succeeded in the activity, but this does not imply that you are a failure. Self-ironic comments in such situations, for example, not only make those around you smile, but are also a way of expressing the knowledge of your own inadequacy. It is precisely for these reasons that humour is counted among the general encouraging qualities and attitudes. In the Harry Potter universe, the boggart that takes the shape of what the person fears most is transformed into something to laugh about, and in carnivalistic cultures the frightening is turned into the grotesque. Because in the moments of laughter, the loss of control sets in and positive emotions are awakened, which strengthen us.

A thinking in chances

In this context, the following should also be mentioned:

  • To see the good,
  • giving confidence,
  • spreading enthusiasm,
  • giving hope,
  • confidence in others and having yourself,
  • see trials and progress,
  • (self) acceptance,
  • have confidence or
  • listen up.

These forms of extraneous encouragement happen through the person as such and require a confident attitude towards the developments of people and societies in general. A confident view neither negates the challenges nor harbours illusionary hopes, but rather makes use of the freedom to create. Aesop’s fable of the two frogs illustrates this point: Two frogs are on a journey and pass a farm on their way. There they find a large pot of milk that has been set aside for skimming. The two frogs jump into the pot and after a satiating drink of milk they realise that they cannot get out of the pot. One frog thinks: “Oh dear, we are lost, there is no rescue now” and drowns. The other frog, however, says to himself: “Difficult situation, I have no choice but to struggle.” He kicks and kicks until the cream turns to butter and he can save himself by jumping out of the pot. It remains an open question why the frog does not share his confidence and thus, for example, shows the pessimistic frog a different direction of his “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Nevertheless, the fable makes it clear that the one frog uses its creative space to change its situation. It is thinking in terms of opportunities rather than indomitable problems, for “confidence generates confidence in the ability to solve problems.”8

And what kinds of encouragement apply to you and your actions? What do you contribute to a climate of growth? What experiences have you already had?

You are welcome to try out your encouragement skills on me and share them with me. I would be very happy to receive a small signal of attention from you.


Notes (mostly in German):

[1] Drucker, P.F. (2015): Warum Selbsteinschätzung? IN: Drucker, P.F./ Kuhl, J.S./ Hesselbein, F. : Die fünf entscheidenden Fragen des Managements für Führungskräfte von heute, 1. Auflage 2015, Wiley-VCH Verlag & Co.KGaA , Weinheim.
[2] Harvard Business Manager (2020): Spezial Mut. Ein Heft über die wichtigste Eigenschaft von Führungskräften. 42 Jahrgang. Spezial 2020, Hamburg
[3] Schoenacker, T. (2018): Mut tut gut. 20. unveränderte Auflage, RDI Verlag, Speyer
[4] Dick, A. (2010): Mut. Über sich hinauswachsen. Verlag Hans Huber, Bern, S. 238f
[5] Damisch, L./ Stoberock B./ Mussweiler, T. (2010): Keep your fingers crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, APS (Abgerufen 28.03.2020 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44638847_Keep_Your_Fingers_Crossed, S. 1915ff
[6] Pastoors, S./ Ebert, H. (2019): Psychologische Grundlagen zwischenmenschlicher Kooperation, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, Wiesbaden.
[7] Dick, A. (2010): Mut. Über sich hinauswachsen. Verlag Hans Huber, Bern, S. 244
[8] Lotter, W. (2018): Innovation. Streitschrift für barrierefreies Denken, Edition Körber, Hamburg.

Sonja Tangermann has published additional posts on the topic of courage in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Courage, the miracle cure for the future?!

Courage, the miracle cure for the future?!

t2informatik Blog: Encouraging leadership

Encouraging leadership

t2informatik Blog: Spotlight on: Encourage!

Spotlight on: Encourage!

Sonja Tangermann
Sonja Tangermann

Sonja Tangermann is committed to early education as a specialist consultant with the aim of strengthening the self-efficacy of those involved and encouraging them to take sustainable action. With her focus on quality and project management and adult education, the exchange and cooperation with people are the central focus of her work. Since 2019, she has also been working part-time as a coach and mediator to accompany organisations and individuals on their way to their own ability to act and supports PMCamp Berlin on a voluntary basis.