What is affirmation?
I’m reading Extraordinary Influence by Tim Irwin. Tim is an Organisational Psychologist and shares insights based on his research and years of experience.
Experience tells us that the best bosses and leaders give public praise and private criticism. The human brain loves affirmation but effective affirmation needs to be more than a passing gesture.
My Affirmation Anecdote
Earlier in my career I worked for a systems integrator and was assigned to a manufacturing company in Coventry. This company had a very traditional culture and hierarchy
I was working on-site to implement a new project management system. One day, just before Christmas, a smart chap in a three piece suit came into the office and started shaking hands, it looked quite awkward and very little conversation was taking place as handshakes were exchanged. The handshaking worked around the room and was offered in my direction when he reached me. I duly shook his hand and, eventually, he left the room. I was intrigued at the event and asked what had just happened. “That was the Managing Director”; came the reply, “He does that every Christmas”. Some people mentioned that they only got to see him at this time of year. I got a handshake despite not even working for the company!
My guess is that nobody felt the encounter was an affirming experience!
Be Supportive, lead from the back
The key is to create a supportive structure that encourages people to act on their best instincts. Throughout my career, when I lead the best teams, our interactions were natural, enthusiastic and productive. I’ve also worked on teams where there was negativity, obstructiveness and difficulty getting traction on any work. I’ve also turned some of these teams around, and the key, in my experience, is summed up in one word:
Communication involves listening and understanding as well as talking, indeed the listening bit should be the major. proportion.
Affirmation in these interactions is key, which is why understanding someone’s triggers and behavioural objective is key to a successful interaction. When you know this, you become a more effective leader.
How to use it in our interactions
Its important to look for the best in people and let the team know that you’ve recognised an attribute or behaviour. This has to be based on a deep seated truth and not some shallow, patronising attribute. It has to be meaningful, specific and relevant to the task or project in hand.
It also has to be delivered with integrity, it’s no good saying the words if your eyes are not showing it. It’s important that it comes from a place of truth within yourself.
The affirmation also has to fit in with your team member’s expectations.
Years ago IBM had a system whereby the great achievers we made to run out into a football stadium full of their peers. Whilst this may be affirming for some, it would be a complete anathema to others.
Affirmation builds productive behaviours
When people are in receipt of genuine, heartfelt and relevant affirmation, they will seek to achieve that feeling again and again. It’s always great to hear from people (who I now count as friends) from my past career saying that it was great working in my teams.
In some cases my team members have gone on to better things and I’d feel completely comfortable working for them in future if called upon. This has indeed actually happened to me on a number of occasions throughout my career.
Affirmation in a Crisis
My IBM Experience
I worked for IBM though some of this time. I was project managing a large deployment for a Telecoms Giant, one of their first major services deals post Gerstner. We were struggling. I had to be bold and make some tough calls. I found support when I needed it and built a great team to deliver a Year 2000 compliant IT system with 2 months to spare.
The abusive coach.
We all know stories of ‘Win at all cost’ coaches who become abusive when their team loses a big sports event. The ones that stay at the top look after their teams and nurture young talent.
Sir Dave Brailsford is legendary in British Cycling for doing just that. It’s hard to believe that Chris Froome, five time grand tour winner and one of only 2 riders to hold all 3 grand tour jerseys at the same time, was just a junior cyclist when Dave took the helm of British cycling.
He stayed there by building a great team and looking after them. His system of Marginal Gains ensured that everyone was at the top of their game. This included things like a Luxurious team bus to allow the Elite Cyclists to relax before and after the race and even selecting the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider.
Improve your Self Awareness through Affirmation
We all should think about how we interact with our teams. Do we positively reinforce our team members appropriately and effectively. Do we provide critical feedback individually and constructively?
We need to celebrate the best behaviour in a way that is always well received and inspires continued success.
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