Encouraging leadership

Guest contribution by | 03.09.2020

Do you remember Pauline from the first part of the article series? Pauline wondered whether she should be brave enough to give a lecture on her ideas of personnel development at a major event with a group of experts or not. She weighed up her thoughts, the pros and cons, in an inner self-conversation. By asking her colleague: “Do you think I should give the lecture about my ideas of personnel development?” she uses the opportunity to compare her own self-assessment with the signals from her environment. An encouraging impulse from her colleague can be the impulse for Pauline to give the lecture. The confidence of the colleague in her abilities as well as her confidence to give a stimulating lecture can, as the Pygmalion effect shows, influence Pauline’s behaviour and give her the “push” to act. The words of the colleague are a kind of extraneous encouragement that can give Pauline’s courage. Whereby any encouragement that takes place in a professional context is defined here as encouraging leadership regardless of a person’s position in the company. And just as in the private sphere, encouragement aims at growth, development and the unfolding of potential, with the concomitant effect that learning and performance are also increased for the company.

Effects of encouraging leadership

In addition, other effects of an encouraging leadership can be seen for companies through a lower friction loss, since problems are usually not concealed and are a reason to look for solutions. This also means that conflicts are not taboo. Conflicts are the constant of living together or, in the professional context of working together, they can stimulate a change of perspective and provide impulses for shaping the way we live together. For example, a dispute makes it clear what is important to the people involved, and changes can be initiated through an open discussion. Ultimately, dealing with the unpleasant, the confrontation of conflicting views and feelings, or even the endurance of differences, holds a chance for new paths.

With the courage to address conflicts at an early stage and the willingness to find solutions, not only changes are driven forward, but also the solidarity and trust among each other is strengthened. Because you are not the problem, we have a problem that requires our joint attention. However, if conflicts become a place of criticism and a mutual match of reproachful remarks, the discouragement is much more likely to set in, leading to the concealment of disagreements, the hardening of the relationship up to the inner termination. Especially recurrent criticism can be accompanied by the feeling that any action is pointless.

A discouraging example

Here is an example of this: In a sales department, all outgoing documents, such as letters to partners or applications, should be passed over the desk of the departmental management. The employees receive the documents back after a longer waiting period with various comments and remarks. The way of writing, which is also the expression of the respective quality of the relationship between employees and their cooperation partners, is no longer valid. Likewise, the departmental management expects that the corrections will be accepted without comment and then resubmitted for final review. Since the feedback is neither justified nor formulated as a suggestion or stimulated by examples, the opportunity to learn from the feedback is minimised. If the dimensions of “good intentions” and the benevolent interest in the growth of the other person and trust in the relationship are not present, the acceptance of the feedback decreases. Depending on the respective situational factors, this approach can discourage employees and may trigger rather negative emotions. Here we should remember the premise that “Bad is stronger than good”, because “Shiny happy people” have a 12% higher work performance in everyday work.1

In addition, the relationship with partners who wait a long time for a reaction is also damaged. The consequence is that commitment decreases: Some employees feel confirmed in their impression that they are not trusted with the task. They let their heads hang down in discouragement. This in turn confirms the departmental management’s view that the employees do not have the necessary skills and that their own involvement is indispensable. This leads to a self-reinforcing process.

According to the Gallup Engagement Index, the need for learning and development opportunities is a central component of emotional attachment, which is allegedly missing from the 6 million employees who have internally quit their jobs. In this case, “Inner terminators (…) have not started their job as drop-outs, but leave the company because of the leadership they have experienced in their daily work”2. In this case, discouragement and demotivation lead to the employees not paying attention to what is happening in the company and not recommending the products or services to others.

Bodo Janssen, the boss of Upstalsboom, was confronted with statements such as “We need another boss than Bodo Janssen” after an employee survey and recognised that the employees did not trust him and did not have the courage to show him that something was going wrong in the company. The results heralded a cultural change known in the media as “The Upstalsboom Way”.3

The magic three of encouragement

The effects of encouraging leadership can be summarised in the same way as the magic triangle or the 3P in project management, the Trinity or the threeness in a religious and mythical context, the three-element doctrine, the three question marks or the three musketeers, the three half-steps in dribbling basketball or the theory of self-determination, also using three elements. It is fascinating how many models and ideas of order can be attributed to three aspects. The three as a symbol for a comprehensive principle or, as with Hegel, as a principle of dialectical progress consisting of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The question remains open whether the three is magically comprehensive or whether the use of a model of three has something to do with our perceptive faculty or retentiveness. Or something else? What do you think?

Let us return to the three elements of encouraging leadership:

  • Firstly, encouragement enables personal growth and offers learning and development opportunities that are not only needed in an organisational context. According to Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, if employees can act in a self-determined way, this has an impact on motivation and thus on commitment and satisfaction in the workplace.4
  • This leads to the second aspect: from an entrepreneurial point of view, competent, motivated and connected employees bring economic added value, which is reflected, for example, in an increase in performance.
  • And thirdly, encouraging leadership has an effect on the social environment, whether it is other departments or the customers, for example.

Imagine throwing a stone into the water. The centre of the impact symbolises the encouraging leadership, which expands in concentric circles. The phenomenon of emotional contagion is known from positive psychology, i.e. people in social groups infect each other with their emotions. Think of a concert, laughing together with others, cheering in a stadium during a sports competition or the video First Follower. The emotions are infectious unconsciously. For a company, this means creating an encouraging climate characterised by trust, the awareness of one’s own fallibility and a space for development. In line with Scharmer’s principle that energy follows attention, it can be stated I encourage (in this way), so courage (in that way) is created. In his Theory U, courage goes hand in hand with the opening of the will, for example to sense or realise future potential. Courage thus expands the scope for design and action.5

What strengthens Pauline’s courage?

Pauline knows that her possible lecture could lead to new cooperations and enrich her heart’s desire for human resources development with new connections and ideas. On the one hand, she is just as aware of her nervousness before lectures and feels the warmth rising to her head and the red blood circulation in her cheeks. On the other hand, the colleague has trusted her to deliver the lecture and has given her the impulse to get tips for her courage challenge with the help of the Troika Consulting method. Following this impulse, she received tips from two colleagues through Troika Consulting on how to approach her courage challenge.

Pauline decides to practise her presentation in front of the mirror and then, as a next step, to give the presentation in front of a small group in the house. She has also thought about who and what could support her in her undertaking: She would like to discuss the individual steps with her colleague regularly and be encouraged by her. In her eyes, the colleague is an encourager, as she focuses her attention more on opportunities and records events as learning experiences. With a mischievous smile on her face, she notes that Yoda from Star Wars says: “The greatest teacher failure is”. This attitude strengthens Pauline and at the same time makes it clear that dealing with failures or mistakes has an impact on one’s own ability to act.

In the corporate context, the climate of error tolerance becomes visible, i.e. is it a climate of growth, i.e. of indirect encouragement, or does a climate of fear prevail. Employees who confirm that a “culture of error” is lived in their company are six times more emotionally bound than employees who experience it in a different professional context. For this reason, people with a striving for flawlessness should not work as leaders, as their fear of making the wrong decisions tends to discourage and unsettle others. On the other hand, knowledge of one’s own inadequacy can be encouraging.

In the Scrum Framework courage is one of the five values that are related to the success of a Scrum team. In cooperation, courageous behaviour should reduce the frictional conflicts mentioned at the beginning through openness and willingness to dialogue. At the same time a safe environment is to be created in which failures are accepted together with the willingness to take new (solution) paths. With the value “courage”, in contrast to the term “error culture”, the focus is directed towards a strengthening aspect despite the implication of errors and failures. After all, who would not like to be courageous at least temporarily or be appreciated for their courageous behaviour? Especially since your courageous actions can provide other colleagues with an orientation for their own actions in the sense of learning to observe. This indirect form of encouragement contributes to a climate or culture of courage which can strengthen the courage of each individual person.

Back to Pauline, who also took up the idea of the talisman and placed it visibly for herself during her practice lectures to encourage herself. Studies have shown that the presence of a “lucky charm” increases the belief in one’s own ability to act, at least in the short term.6 In Pauline’s lecture, it is precisely these initial minutes in which the belief in one’s own effectiveness can reduce her nervousness.

She has recorded the further suggestions she has received from colleagues and friends in a list. In this list she has recorded the individual steps and tips for facing her challenge of courage. In addition, she thought about what could happen in the worst case and imagined how she would feel after the dare challenge, as well as the possibilities it could open up for her. Her encouraging colleague has also given her the opportunity to record what she has learned for and about herself from her challenge. This question helps her to focus on her own learning experience. Thus, encouraged, she promises the organisers.

WIN Situation³

From a business perspective, Pauline’s commitment is a classic WIN situation according to negotiation expert William Ury, in three respects of course:

  • Pauline’s bold move is aimed at unlocking her development potential, from which both she and the company will benefit.
  • At the same time, other colleagues can orient themselves to Pauline and also feel the desire to develop themselves further.
  • If the company supports the opportunity to develop further, this can also strengthen the emotional bond with the company. This is accompanied by a reduction in personnel costs, e.g. through less absenteeism or fluctuation and an increase in performance.

As flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says: “If a workforce feels that the boss considers it his best performance to have advanced his employees in their capabilities, this will most likely increase productivity and strengthen employee loyalty.”7.

The development of the respective potentials not only brings new impulses, directions of thought, impulses for action into the company, but also broadens the spectrum of fields of activity for the future. With the help of encouraging leadership, new paths can be taken and an environment can be strengthened which is designed for trial and error, for letting go of the existing and devoting attention to the new. Leaders should reflect on their actions and consider what they contribute to encouraging leadership and to what extent their behaviour strengthens courage in the company, ultimately improving responsiveness and adaptability and refreshing the joy of innovation.

If you notice encouraging behaviour in your leader, please encourage it in your own interest. A study by Heike Bruch et al. showed that 36% of managers, especially those in top management, are despondent committed or frustrated.8 This is not a breeding ground for strengthening courage in the company or in you. Let alone to drive innovation.

Encouraging leadership and strengthening a climate of courage focuses on further development and does not negate the fact that efforts are necessary for this. There will be conflicts or challenges, there will be stress and sometimes perseverance, and it will take people to encourage each other along the way. Encouragers who can bring out in others the joy of personal development, either after periods of discouragement or to strengthen confidence in their own abilities. Who encourages you? For which step do you need encouragement? Or who could you encourage in your professional context?

Whatever your steps of self or external encouragement may be, there is one more thing I would like to ask you to do: recognise and appreciate your learning steps.


Notes (mostly in German):

[1] Oswald, A. J./ Proto, E./ Sgroi, D. (2009): Happiness and Productivity, IZA DP No. 4645, Institute for the Study of Labor
[2] Nink, M. (2019): Gallup Engagement Index 2019: Deutschlands Unternehmen lassen Mitarbeiter bei der Digitalisierung häufig allein
[3] Schmidt, J.L. (2020): Plötzlich Chef – was nun? (last accessed 25.07.2020)
[4] Deci, E. L./ Ryan, R. M. (1993): Die Selbstbestimmungstheorie der Motivation und ihre Bedeutung für die Pädagogik. In Zeitschrift für Pädagogik Jahrgang 39 (1993) 2, S.223 -238.
[5] Scharmer, C.O. (2019): Essentials der Theorie U, 1. Auflage 2019, Carl-Auer Systeme Verlag und Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Heidelberg.
[6] Damisch, L./ Stoberock B./ Mussweiler, T. (2010), Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, S 1015ff (last accessed 25.07.2020)
[7] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004): Flow im Beruf. Das Geheimnis des Glücks am Arbeitsplatz, Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart.
[8] Bruch, Heike (2020): CEO Commitment und Grassroot: Was in turbulenten Zeiten zählt. unveröffentlichte Power Point Präsentation zum Vortrag bei der Veranstaltung “HR Pepper Digitales Wohnzimmer”“.

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

t2informatik Blog: Encouragement leads to courage

Encouragement leads to courage

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

Courage, the miracle cure for the future?!

t2informatik Blog: Scheinwerferlicht an: Mut machen!

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.