We know that one of the marks of great leadership is the desire and ability to bring out the best in the people we lead.  This includes helping them grow in their courage through the right kind of encouragement.  This applies to leadership in organizations, families and in any relationship where one person is responsible for leading another.  But encouragement doesn’t just apply to leaders.  Followers can give courage to leaders.  Children can give courage to parents.  Siblings can give courage to each other; so can friends and co-workers.  Anyone can give courage. 

One way we give courage is to show people that we sincerely believe in them.  But what kind of belief gives courage – to others or to ourselves – and what does that belief look like?

Specific Encouragement

The more specifically we believe in people, the more specifically we can encourage them.  This is important if we are trying to encourage them in a specific situation, task or challenge.

Encouragement can be general instead of specific.  For example, I could say, “I believe in you.  I believe you can do anything you set your mind to.”  But how much courage have I actually given you, and how long will it last?

Usually, the kind of encouragement that has the greatest impact is more specific. 

  • “I believe you are the right person for this challenge.  You’re built for it.  The reason I’m so sure is because…”

Then I tell you exactly what qualities you have, or what I’ve seen you achieve, or what I’ve heard about you – the reputation you’ve built – that empowers and equips you to master the challenge you are facing.  I’m not just trying to give you a glimmer of hope that you are up to the task, I’m trying to prove it.  I’m trying to convince you that my belief in you is based on reality, not wishful thinking.  Hope is a priceless treasure, but in this situation it’s not just hope that I’m trying to give you, it’s courage.

This is one way we can encourage others, and it’s also a way we can encourage ourselves.  We can search through our own history, and our own inventory of assets, to discover as many ways as possible that we are already equipped for the task at hand.  This also gives us more clarity for the improvements we still need to make, and ways we are already equipped to make those improvements.  We can draw upon memories of improvements we have already made in other areas when we wanted or needed to.

We express specific belief in people when we express specific appreciation for them in terms of who they are, what they accomplish, and what they can offer.  People value us more for what we can give than for what we can get, and specific appreciation for what we give is a powerful kind of encouragement.  Here are some examples of specific appreciation:

  • “I really appreciate the way you…”
  • “One thing that makes you really special is…”
  • “I’ve really benefitted from knowing you because…”
  • “One thing I’ve learned from you is…”
  • “One reason you’re so good at this is…”
  • “One way you’ve really made a difference is…”
  • “One thing you’re known for is…”
  • “One compliment I heard about you was…and it is so true.”

Expressing appreciation in specific ways can have a profound impact on how people see themselves.  They are more likely to believe in themselves when they know that other people believe in them.  This is especially important in leadership.  The more we believe in the people we lead, the more they will believe in themselves, and the more successful they will be.  And it’s not just knowing that we believe in them, it’s knowing why we believe in them.

We can give ourselves courage by receiving the belief that others have in us.

The Power of Self-Definitions

An important factor in our self-belief is the way we choose to define ourselves.  Our self-definitions have a lot of influence over what we believe we can do as well as who we believe we are.  Do our results determine our self-definitions, or do our self-definitions determine our results?  One thing is certain: we need to be intentional about our self-definitions.  We need to define ourselves, or someone else will define us, and they may not have our best interests in mind. 

We develop our self-definitions partly through the people in our lives that we allow to influence us.  The people we allow to influence our self-definitions the most are parents, friends, mentors, and authority figures we respect – leaders. 

Our performance – and the level of success we achieve – is influenced in a big way by our self-definitions.  Now there’s an interesting chicken and egg deal here between our self-definitions and our performance.  Most people perform at a level that is consistent with their expectations of themselves.  It’s not necessarily the level at which they should be performing, or are capable of performing, or want to perform.  It’s the level at which they expect to perform – their expectations of themselves based on their self-definitions.  If we expect to perform at level B and we’re only performing at level C, we know we have to step it up.

Where it gets interesting is if we are performing at level A and all we expect from ourselves is to perform at level B, it can create an unusual kind of anxiety.  We start to believe that something is wrong, and we start waiting for the other shoe to drop.  This is the root of that popular but unfortunate expression, “When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

A person’s self-definition can become their comfort zone, and a little voice in their head tells them to stay there, where it’s safe.  As leaders we need to help our people remove their self-imposed ceilings.  We need to help them eliminate their self-limiting self-definitions.  Here are some examples of what I mean by self-limiting self-definitions.

  • A golfer says, “I don’t think I’ll ever break par because I’m not a good putter.”
  • A salesperson says, “I’ll never be a strong closer because I don’t have a pushy personality.”
  • A leader says, “I’ll never lead by charisma because I’m not the party-animal type.”
  • An employee says, “I’d never make it in customer service because I don’t like confrontation.”

All four of these self-limiting self-definitions are fairly easy to turn around, either with a different perspective or with a few new skills.  In each case, the person can say, if they choose to, “All I need to do to be good at this is to…” 

We need to define ourselves in terms of what we can do instead of what we can’t.  We need to define ourselves in terms of who we are instead of who they are notIn this way we can encourage ourselves, and we can also encourage others. 

We can especially help others to develop a new perspective.  We can give them a new way of looking at putting, pushiness, charisma or confrontation.  Whatever their challenge is, we can give them a new perspective, and we can tell them why we believe they can do it.  We can teach them to define themselves in terms of who they are instead of who they are not.  We can free them from the trap of a self-limiting self-definition.

Now let’s look at how to inspire self-belief from one more angle. 

There’s a term called the “Pygmalion Effect.” It’s named after a fictional character created by the Roman poet Ovid over 2000 years ago, but it’s been widely studied in terms of leadership, teaching and coaching.  The Pygmalion Effect is the principle that we tend to become what the people we most admire believe we already are, or can be.  It means our self-definitions are profoundly influenced by the opinions of people we respect.  When we see a positive reflection of ourselves in the eyes of people we admire, it strengthens our self-image.  It raises our self-esteem.  It increases our motivation.  This is another way that we can give and receive courage.

If someone whose opinion we respect believes in us, it increases the likelihood that we will succeed – and even more so if that person is in a position of influence or authority over us.  In the context of leadership, the Pygmalion Effect says that the more we believe in the people we lead, the more they will believe in themselves, and the more successful they will be.

The same principle works in reverse, and this is where we have to be especially careful.  If we believe they will not succeed, it increases the chances that they will not.  If we seem indifferent to whether they will succeed, it increases the chances that they will be indifferent to their own level of success.

We also need to receive other people’s belief in us.  Sometimes, if we don’t feel confident in ourselves, we can put our trust in the people who do have confidence in us.

Put Weaknesses into the Context of Strengths

Another way we can express our belief in others is to see their weaknesses in the context of their strengths.  The strengths we need in order to overcome our weaknesses are often built into us.  Strengths often have corresponding weaknesses, and weaknesses often have corresponding strengths.  If we believe we are struggling in an area of weakness, what strengths do we have that counter it?  If we are encouraging someone else in their area of weakness, what corresponding strength can we help them mobilize to conquer the weakness, or at least take it out of play for the task at hand?  We can encourage people by expressing our belief that they have the right strength to overcome the weakness that makes them reluctant to do what they need to do.

For example, a compassionate person might struggle with confrontation, even when it involves telling a difficult truth that someone needs to hear.  But they must resist the temptation to avoid the confrontation.  You can help them break through their reluctance by drawing on the strength of their compassion instead of its weakness.  You could say it like this:

  • “I know you are a compassionate person.  I admire that about you. You want what is best for people.  You don’t want to hurt people, and if they’re hurting, you want to help them.  Now is the time to reach deep down into that compassion to tell them the truth they need to hear in order to get to a better place than where they are now.  It might hurt them to hear it, but only for a short while. Then they’ll appreciate and respect what you gave them, and the courage it took to do it.  This is your time to use your compassion in a powerful way.  You are built for this.”

You are giving them the courage to put their compassion into action.  What good is their compassion if they don’t?

We can encourage ourselves in this way, too.  We can seek out the strengths that are already in us that were designed to conquer our weaknesses.

Give Courage by Taking People Seriously

An often-overlooked way to express our belief in people is simply to take them seriously.  People become discouraged – their courage is taken away – when they don’t believe they are taken seriously.  This often happens by accident.  We don’t follow through on a commitment we made, or we don’t act like we care about someone’s need or concern, just because at that moment we had something else on our mind that seemed more urgent.  Yet from the other person’s perspective, we took away a little piece of their dignity.  When we respond thoughtfully and respectfully, and give them thoughtful, truthful answers with the explanations they need in order to understand, it feels like we are protecting their dignity. 

We are not giving them dignity any more than we are giving them strength.  Dignity and strength are built into all of us.  We encourage people by calling out the dignity and strength that is already in them.  We are helping them to build their self-definitions around their dignity and strengths. 

A valuable opportunity to show that you take someone seriously is when they tell you about a challenge they are facing, and you listen so attentively that you can reply:

  • “Let me tell you what I think I heard in what you said, and then tell me what you think.”

This invokes the spirit of collaboration which expresses that you are taking them seriously.  It implies your respect for them and your belief in them, and your commitment to partnering with them to find a solution to their challenge.

Regard for the Well-Being of Others

Our ability to encourage self-belief in others comes from our desire to show regard for them.  We do this by removing our regard for their well-being from the context of own well-being.  Imagine two circles.  Our regard for their well-being is one, and our regard for our own well-being is the other.  The highest form of regard for the well-being of others is when the two circles are completely separate.  If the circle of our regard for their well-being is inside the circle of our own, that is disregard.  If the two circles partially overlap, that produces a combination of regard and disregard.  When the two circles are completely separate, then our regard for others is uncluttered by our self-regard.  That is true regard for the well-being of others.  It also creates a healthier form of self-regard.  It is another way to give and receive courage, and it is a powerful form of encouragement.

When our regard for the well-being of others takes us outside of our comfort zone or causes us to make a sacrifice, it is a powerful statement of our belief in them and our regard for them.  It shows that we take their well-being seriously.  It is very encouraging.  

If you feel as though you should speak up for the well-being of someone else but don’t because they’re not worth it, then of course that is disregard.  But if you believe they are worth speaking up for, even though you might be criticized for it, that is keeping the two circles separate.  It can increase the self-worth and improve the self-definition of the person you spoke up for because you have honored their value. 

We have talked about several approaches for encouraging people – giving them courage – by showing your belief in them and increasing their belief in themselves.   Sometimes we give that encouragement to others more easily than we receive the encouragement they give to us.  We need to be intentional about both, and about giving courage to ourselves in the same ways we give it to others, especially when it comes to belief.