Last weekend it was Marathon Sunday in NYC. My wife and I live right on the route, right where the runners start the long and slow climb up the Queensboro bridge.
So we spent a good few hours, along with loads of other New Yorkers, cheering the runners on. It felt great, really great. We didn't know these people, will likely never see them again, and had nothing to gain from their feats.
However, it felt special and got me thinking about how I could become a more effective cheerleader for my team and what the benefits of that might be.
Let's start with how I like to cheer runners on. Just like our colleagues, runners often signal what's important to them. You only need to look. Many people wear some clothing that reveals something about their tribal membership. Maybe a Union Jack or University of Michigan t-shirt. Many, perhaps even most, go further - adding their name to the top.
This makes effectively supporting them extremely easy (and fun, if you enjoy nerding out on flags). Just give them a healthy "Go on Ireland! You've got this Jessica". Your encouragement is reflective of both their collective and individual identity. It's exactly what they wanted when they selected to run in that outfit. No-one runs dressed as a Panda hoping people won't notice.
As with all forms of praise and encouragement, specific trumps general. Every time.
On our teams, we can do even better.
In most business environments praise is far more frequent than encouragement. We congratulate people for their efforts and results, hoping that doing so will inspire them to further action. Giving encouragement before the outcome is know is practiced less in the workplace.
There is some justification for this. When the eventual results are unclear many managers don't wish to 'go on the record' too soon, fearing the restricts their future options. In environments of moderate to severe toxicity, encouragement can also come across as insincere. Additionally, many employees also don't welcome encouragement - especially if they favor a martyr approach to work.
By contrast, praise is easy. You remove the risk by waiting for outcomes to be known before making your approval public. As a leader, I wish to take a more bold standing. I encourage my team publicly before the results are known.
Doing so helps me to separate my appreciation of results from the value I place on doing the best possible work - regardless of the outcomes. This practice also acknowledges that in the modern competitive landscape, for all our best efforts, sometimes the outcomes are outside of our control. A gifted team (or individual) performing at a high level will have the highest likelihood of good results, but it's far from certain.
Use encouragement if you are willing to demonstrate your belief in person and good process.
But, how to give encouragement?
Think about everything you know about someone you work with. You know aspects of their private life, professional identity, struggles, motivation, and most importantly, their goals. Even if you do not have an especially close relationship I'm willing to wager you could say something substantive and accurate about all these factors for any individual on your team.
So use this information when you want to cheer them on. Be specific about playing back to them the signals they are putting out into the world. Make sure that you are not encouraging them based on what you value, but rather what they value. The marathoner is running the race, not you.
Getting the encouragement based on things that they value (rather than you) directly specifically affirms their self-identification and builds their sense of security. Specifically, helping place them in the frame of mind where they can get the best results.