Taking Stock: Are you The Terminator or The Encourager?

Imagine a child struggling to learn new math facts for a big test. After much post-test anxiety, the student proudly rushes home with his test paper adorned with a bright sticker and the words, "Way to go!" boldly written across the top of the page. The child's wide smile and sense of pride are obvious testimony to the power of those encouraging signs.

Imagine that same child living through that same post-test anxiety, only to receive back a page with the terse statement, "You can do better." With his worst fears realized, how can that student feel motivated to actually do better?

Words can have a powerful impact on not only students of all ages but our own co-workers and employees as well. Encouraging words boost employee morale and give us the motivation to keep trying and keep working. Lack of encouragement--whether overtly verbal or non-verbal--squashes employee morale and defeats our sense of perseverance.

Even lack of acknowledgement is a form of discouragement. Don't get so buried in your own work that you fail to notice the efforts of those around you.

As a new year is dawning, many people take the time to engage in self-reflection to determine how they can improve in the coming year. Now is a perfect time to determine if you are a morale Encourager or a morale Terminator. Reflect on ways that you can resolve to be The Encourager throughout the new year.

The Encouragement Challenge

Face it, healthcare is hard work. Oftentimes, a steady paycheck just isn't enough to make employees happy. What's oftentimes missing is the daily words of encouragement from managers, supervisors, and even other team members. When those words of encouragement are underused or MIA, employee turnover skyrockets, team morale plummets, and the level of service slips right along with it. In addition, little to no feedback creates insecurity and confusion among team members.

The challenge is to find opportunities to recognize hard work on a daily basis. Everyone wants to feel that their work is valued, and everyday your employees and team members are performing valuable work. Do they know that you appreciate their hard work? Make an effort to find the good work being done around you, and build your encouragement vocabulary as you show others how to see the good in their work.

Sometimes you need to pay attention to the cues of your team members to recognize their contributions. For example, a nurse stays past the end of her shift to finish her documentation for the day, which you thank her for. On her way out the door, you hear her talking to a co-worker about rushing to her daughter's dance recital. How much more would it mean to her if you acknowledged that she put in extra effort at personal cost? You don't just say thank you but "Thank you for taking the extra time on that documentation. I know you're on your way to Becky's dance recital; I hope you're not too rushed."

Be The Encourager Every Day

Managers and supervisors have a great opportunity to be The Encourager once a year during employee performance reviews. However, there are 364 other days in the year when you can help fuel employee motivation.

Feedback is actually more meaningful when it's delivered "on the fly." It's perceived as more genuine, and the receiver knows that you're fully present with what's happening on the job at that moment. So, don't wait for a time when it's less hectic; who knows when that moment will present itself? A quick, "Thank you for keeping a cool head!" in the middle of a rough day can help refill the energy tank of an employee who's running on empty.

Even if you're not in a management or supervisory position, you can still dole out encouragement. You can lead the way by finding the good in what your co-workers are doing every day. Think about your own job and how you'd like to be encouraged. After all, if it's something you'd like to hear yourself, chances are your co-workers would love to hear it too. Start a habit of encouraging the good in each other on a daily basis. For example, tell your coworker that you admire his approach in dealing with a difficult situation. Or tell a fellow staff member that you appreciate her willingness to pitch in.

Turning The Terminator Into The Encourager

How you offer encouragement is just as important as when you offer it. Your tone of voice and body language can either enhance your message or detract from it. The busier you get, the less you make eye contact with your co-workers. And it's during those hectic, busy times when we all need encouragement the most. Stop, look, and keep eye contact with your co-worker.

Then say what you mean, sincerely and specifically. Insincere praise is worse than no praise at all. An overly patronizing or critical tone will detract from an encouraging message and the effect on morale will be just the opposite of what you intended.

In the same way, vague words of recognition will be brushed off as insincere and meaningless. The more specific you can be, the more valued your co-workers will feel: "Nice job managing the crowd at the registration desk," isn't quite as meaningful as, "Thank you for your efforts during that busy check-in period this morning. You took the time to make eye contact with everyone and made sure they understood what they were signing. It was so nice to see you make all of our patients feel welcome and comfortable by offering coffee or water and comfortable seating as they waited."

Written words of encouragement are also valuable. It doesn't have to be a formal congratulatory letter; a quick e-mail or Post-It note can perk up someone's day. During our workshops, I like to ask participants to raise their hands if they have ever received a written thank-you note from a boss. Then I ask them to keep their hand raised if they kept the note. In virtually every workshop, nearly 100 percent kept their hands raised. That speaks volumes about the value of a thank-you note.

I'll never forget the night when I worked a double shift to cover for staff who were unable to make it in due to bad roads. I was exhausted but felt that we had all pulled together to serve our patients effectively and efficiently. When I went to punch out, I saw a note clipped to my time card. At first glance I wondered if it was a little thank-you note of acknowledgement from my manager. Imagine how deflated I felt when I read, "You forgot to empty the trash in room 304. Please try to remember this in the future!" Talk about deflated. I had run my butt off for 16 hours and my manager's only comment was not about excellent patient care and teamwork but, rather, garbage duty.

One way to turn yourself from The Terminator into The Encourager is to stop yourself from writing a negative note unless it is absolutely necessary. In this case, the garbage reminder was insignificant and totally unnecessary especially in context of all the good work that had just been done. I'm sure after all these years that manager would have no recollection of that incident. I, on the other hand, will never forget it. People don't leave their jobs, they leave their managers. And I was no exception. This is a classic example of how The Terminator squelches the spirits of dedicated employees.

Resolve to make this year a year of encouragement and positive reinforcement. You'll reap the rewards with happier, more productive employees and co-workers whose commitment and service levels will continue to rise.

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