Becoming your team’s greatest cheerleader starts with believing in their greatness and encouraging them to believe it as well. But how exactly can you convince people that they are capable of great things, especially when they may have spent most of their lives believing the opposite? We looked earlier at the importance of self-talk and self-confidence, and I mentioned the work of psychologist Albert Bandura and his theory of self-efficacy, which refers to how confident people are in their own abilities. Part of Bandura’s research focused on what he called verbal persuasion or social persuasion. Unlike self-talk, verbal persuasion refers to the fact that what others think and say about your abilities has the power to shape what you think about your abilities. Bandura believed that verbal persuasion was among the key factors in developing self-efficacy. He writes: People who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to master given activities are likely to mobilize greater effort and sustain it than if they harbor self-doubts and dwell on personal deficiencies when problems arise. Since then, countless studies have applied Bandura’s ideas to everything from junior high academics to college success and career choices, all with consistent results: there is a direct link between the verbal encouragement people receive and their subsequent confidence and performance levels. Send the kids through a walkable neighbourhood on a treasure hunt this weekend.
This has significant implications for leaders. When you believe in others and encourage them, you shape their self-view, build their confidence, and contribute to their success. Conversely, if you express disbelief in their abilities, or if you continually point out their flaws and deficiencies, you can actually weaken their confidence and hinder their advancement. That’s why negativity is rarely, if ever, a good motivational strategy. To put it another way, you can encourage people into their destiny, but you can’t shame them into it.
What does verbal encouragement look like? First of all, verbal encouragement should be sincere. You have to believe what you are saying. If you can’t say something sincerely encouraging to someone, you might need to either reevaluate your attitude or reevaluate the person’s role, because leaders have to believe in the people on their team. Second, verbal encouragement should be specific. This requires a little work. One-size-fits-all compliments and clichés might be easier, but they mean less. Instead of “you’re the best,” or “you’re so amazing,” you might say, “I am in awe of your organizational abilities” or “I loved how you handled that customer’s complaint.”
Finally, verbal encouragement should be frequent. Self-confidence leaks, and people need to be filled up regularly. Cheerleaders never stop cheering: they shout encouragement throughout the game, whether or not the team is winning and whether or not players seem to need it. Likewise, leaders should continually focus on building the confidence of their team members. In addition to verbal encouragement, Bandura’s research identified another important factor that contributes to self-efficacy, something he calls mastery experiences. The term, as he defines it, refers to personal experiences of success. In other words, if you’ve had a measure of success already, you will be more likely to believe you’ll continue to succeed. “Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy,” he writes.
Good leaders use both of these things—verbal encouragement and mastery experiences—to build confidence in others. Bandura continues: Successful efficacy builders do more than convey positive appraisals. In addition to raising people’s beliefs in their capabilities, they structure situations for them in ways that bring success and avoid placing people in situations prematurely where they are likely to fail often. They measure success in terms of self-improvement rather than by triumphs over others. That means that leaders look for ways to set people up for success. Good leaders are not just cheerleaders; they are realistic cheerleaders. Don’t lie to people about what they can do: that only leads to disappointment when they try and fail. You need to know them and to believe in them, to see the best in them and to draw that out. That means encouraging them to try, and it also means giving them appropriate opportunities for mastery experiences and actively supporting their progress and improvement.