Practice Exemplary Leadership—Encourage the Heart

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do Posner and Kouzes mean by “encourage the heart” in The Leadership Challenge? What can a leader do to “connect with the heart” of your team members?

“Encourage the heart” is one of the core leadership principles in The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner and James Kouzes. There are two guidelines for connecting with the heart of your subordinates 1) recognizing contributions, and 2) celebrating values and victories.

We’ll take a look at each of these concepts below.

Lead Through the Heart

To inspire lasting commitment, you must “encourage the hearts” of your team as much as their minds. This means connecting with them personally. To engage your team members hearts in a way that increases their motivation and commitment to your project and your leadership, follow these guidelines:

  • Guideline 1: Recognize contributions.
  • Guideline 2: Celebrate values and victories.

Guideline 1: Recognize Contributions

When you recognize the contributions of your team members, you help them feel appreciated for both what they do and who they are. Encouragement helps people function at their highest level, and helps people endure when hours are long, work is difficult or problematic, and the challenge seems daunting. At times like this, people need emotional replenishment—encouragement—to fuel their commitment. 

There are two parts to properly recognizing contributions: 

  1. Communicate high expectations
  2. Personalize your recognition

1. Communicate High Expectations

Your expectations of your team affect how they perform: When you expect people to do well, they tend to. Conversely, when you expect people to fail, they probably will. Your expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy; how you see them is how they will see themselves. 

You broadcast your opinions of other people whether you intend to or not, through body language, the way you phrase things, or even the type of work you assign. So it’s in your best interest to truly believe in the abilities of your team members. 

Your expectations provide a framework through which people structure their behavior. One series of studies illustrated this well: Researchers found that when giving feedback, if they prefaced it with a statement like, “I’m giving you this critique because I have high expectations and I’m confident you can do this,” the person receiving the feedback was 40% more likely to accept and act on the feedback. 

When leaders make a point of frequently telling people they believe in them and expect great things from them, team members report stronger feelings of trust, team spirit, and commitment. 

2. Personalize Your Recognition

The best way to recognize a team member is with personalized recognition that lets them know you’ve noticed them in particular for a specific accomplishment. This runs counter to many incentive systems, which are routine, bureaucratic, and one-size-fits-all. 

People consistently report that the most meaningful recognition they’ve received is personal rather than financial. In fact, relying on financial recognition to the exclusion of any personal recognition can be demotivating rather than motivating. For example, one manager at Wells Fargo had a habit of rewarding his team members with bonuses for good work, but never reached out and thanked them personally or gave them any encouraging feedback. Instead, he would simply include a bonus to their paycheck with no explanation. The random and inconsistent nature of the rewards, coupled with the lack of guidance, left his team unable to determine when they were doing well or why. Morale and productivity decreased as a result. 

Guideline 2: Celebrate Values and Victories 

You can engage the hearts of your team members by bringing an attitude of celebration to your workplace. In doing so, celebrate not only accomplishments but also the shared values that define your team. 

To cultivate a celebratory workspace:

  1. Foster community spirit.
  2. Become personally involved.

1. Foster Community Spirit Through Celebrations

Creating a spirit of community motivates people to do their best because they’re thinking not only of themselves but of their peers. Their identity becomes linked to the group, making them more invested in the group’s success. 

Humans are social creatures, and you should view social gatherings not as a nuisance, but instead as a way to allow your team members to exercise their instinctive drives to form bonds with others. Strong social connections lead to trust, reciprocity, information sharing, and collaboration, all of which lead to success for your organization or project. 

Research shows that corporate celebrations, ceremonies, and rituals are effective ways of creating a feeling of community. During good times, celebrations make team members feel proud of their accomplishments. During difficult times, celebrations draw people together and increase morale, helping team members persevere through the challenges. Studies show that employees working for leaders who always find ways to celebrate accomplishments are 25% more committed to their jobs than those working for leaders who seldom do. 

The purpose of celebrations is not only to build community spirit but also to explicitly reinforce actions and behaviors that demonstrate your organization’s shared values. As such, celebrations don’t have to be elaborate; they can be small ways to connect the everyday actions of your team to the wider organization. For example, you might regularly highlight exemplary employees at staff meetings, and make those shout-outs resonate by specifically listing their accomplishments. 

To successfully implement celebrations into your regular work routines:

  • Publicly Celebrate Accomplishments. Public celebrations encourage a culture of positivity, which translates into happy employees. Research shows that people often adopt the mood of others around them in what’s called “emotional contagion.” Brain scans show neurological circuits are activated when a person sees another act in a certain way, as if they’d acted that way themselves. Therefore, celebrating one person’s success makes their teammates feel happy about themselves, too. 
  • Encourage Friendships. Teams made up of friends perform better: they communicate better, evaluate ideas more critically, give more appropriate feedback to help others stay on track, and offer more positive encouragement. Use celebrations to encourage social connections among your team members, even if it’s something as simple as a group cheer at a staff meeting.
  • Have Fun. Your team’s sense of community spirit will increase when your team has fun. Having fun doesn’t necessarily mean having parties. Fun can be built into the work itself. For example, if there’s a difficult task, be positive and encouraging, so that the task feels enjoyable. 

2. Be Personally Involved

To effectively build a culture that celebrates its values and accomplishments, be personally involved in those celebrations. When you’re present to cheer your team members, you send a stronger message than you ever could through any formal corporate communication. Being personally involved earns a leader respect, trust, credibility, and loyalty from their team. 

Research confirms the impact that being personally involved can have on your team. Employees who report that their leaders almost always get personally involved in celebrating accomplishments rate themselves 40% to 50% higher on measures of motivation, pride, and productivity than do workers who report their leaders are only occasionally personally involved in recognition. 

To become personally involved in your organization’s celebrations:

  • Show You Care. Showing you care means making your team members feel supported and valued, and assuring them that you won’t ask them to do something where they could be hurt. When you show you care, they feel you have their best interests at heart, and they’re more likely to work hard for you. There are many ways you can do this, including:
    • Say thanks: The simple act of saying “thank you” is a great way to show your team that you have their interests at heart.
    • Deliver bad news in person: Instead of letting someone know of difficult changes through email, a phone call, or a lower-level manager, talk with them face-to-face. 
    • Be consistently visible: Attending meetings or organizational events, stopping by cubicles to chat, visiting customers, and touring labs or factories demonstrates that you care about the people who work in different areas of your organization. 
  • Spread Stories. When you become personally involved in the work routines and operations of your team members, you’ll witness activities that exemplify your organization’s values. Remember these examples and be ready to relate them to others in the form of first-person stories (something you saw yourself rather than something someone else told you about). There are many ways you can disseminate company stories, including:
    • Publishing them in a company newsletter
    • Including them in the company’s annual report
    • Making videos about them on an internal network
    • Mentioning them on internal social media
  • Incorporate Celebrations Into Organizational Life. Mark celebratory moments on the company calendar. Include not just birthdays and holidays but also significant milestones of your team and organization. Use celebrations to honor individuals, groups, teams, departments, or organizational accomplishments. This lets your team know that you prioritize these celebrations and allows members to look forward to them. Some examples of the types of celebrations you can work into your company’s regular calendar include:
    • Cyclical celebrations: for key milestones, anniversaries, or holidays
    • Recognition celebrations: for accomplishments
    • Major milestone celebrations: for large achievements such as opening a new branch
    • Comfort rituals: for banding together after layoffs, the loss of a colleague, or some other setback
    • Personal transitions: for exits and entrances of workers
    • Altruism: for social policies and charitable works
    • Play: for pure entertainment—sporting events, happy hours, games, and so on

Case Study: Stephanie Sorg of the San Jose Earthquakes

Stephanie Sorg, a coach for the developmental team of the San Jose Earthquakes, a Major League Soccer club, found that leading with heart brought out the best in her team members. After she noticed that her coaching style was not motivating the team effectively, she decided to focus more on the personal needs of her players and less on the strict game fundamentals. She started commenting on their efforts rather than their mistakes and getting to know their interests. After some time, her changed style made a concrete difference: The players paid more attention to her feedback and became more dedicated to their performance.

Practice Exemplary Leadership—Encourage the Heart

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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