The power of affirmation: finding deep wells of talent

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“You are really good at that”.

I am sure that many of us are in careers we have chosen because we were told (possibly in childhood) that we had a particular talent or had done something really well. It is a rare human being who does not swell a little with pride when receiving praise which comes from a person who is important in our lives, be it parent, teacher, friend or manager. 

I am (to be polite to myself) a long way past childhood. But I still got quite a thrill the other day when talking to an ex-colleague about a possible collaboration and he said to me: “That’s vintage Cedric. Getting right to the heart of the problem.” It made me think “that is what I do well” and it certainly made me keen to pursue the conversation.

This is not a trivial point. The effect of such affirmation is not only (or even most importantly) to make one feel good, but to give one the confidence to display more of the talents and behaviours that attracted the positive attention in the first place. Surely then it should play a much bigger role in our talent management strategies, assuming that we are really serious about maximising the talent at our disposal.

From the perspective of positive psychology, this awareness of one’s strengths is something one should cultivate internally. Many benefits flow from having a sound and balanced grasp of one’s talents, developing them further and deploying them in the world so as to live one’s “best life” – not in a selfish hedonistic way, but in relation to one’s values, family and commitment to the broader community.

Along with such self-assurance, comes an optimism that things will go well and the ability to act with confidence to achieve positive outcomes. The inevitable occasional failure is experienced as a temporary setback, rather than proof that things always go wrong.

In an article stressing the importance of self-affirmation, [i]Cohen and Sherman put it like this. “People have a basic need to maintain the integrity of the self, a global sense of personal adequacy”. Their article focuses on how self-affirmation enables that sense of adequacy.

I would like to suggest that in the workplace (at least), affirmation from others plays a critical role in building that interior knowledge of one’s strengths.

In the last year or so I have worked with a large number of leaders and senior managers, helping them to understand the reports they receive on 360° assessments in which they have participated. The report provides feedback on how colleagues, managers and staff experience them in relation to a variety of different behaviours. The rating is on a scale that runs from “development area” to “always a strength”.  I have been struck by how much almost every leader’s attention (left to itself) will focus on the lower scores and more critical comments. These are often a source of distress and become the focus of the personal development plans that follow the assessment.

I have come to recognise two things about this response:

  1. It is not surprising. As Cohen and Sherman state in the article mentioned above: “Events that threaten self-integrity arouse stress and self-protective defences that can hamper performance and growth.” Critical feedback is experienced as such an event and can shake peoples’ confidence and therefore their ability to do their job.
  2. That the manager’s whole response to the report changes if one focuses first on the sections that report on those behaviours where the respondents have given the highest score. There is usually both recognition (“that’s right – I am good at those things”) and surprise (“Wow, that’s interesting – I didn’t know people thought I was good at that.) The confidence that wells up from this affirmation, makes it possible to deal with “development areas” in a new light.  The response is now: “OK, maybe there are a few things I could be doing differently, and I have the strengths to help me make some changes where necessary.”

So, while positive psychology focuses on self-affirmation – the alignment of one’s mind with one’s life purpose, it is clear to me that this alignment is highly dependent on outside stimuli – the most important of which is the feedback that we receive from others.

We know this instinctively and have experienced it in practice.  Almost everyone will tell you about the manager, mentor or family member who gave them the confidence to do more than they had thought they could or highlighted a particular talent of which they were not aware.

And we know the opposite is also true. People who are continually criticised often fall into a kind of “learned helplessness”, where they simply stop trying to do anything except the bare minimum, in the hope that they can scrape by without attracting negative attention.

An article in the Harvard Business Review put it like this[ii]: “It is a paradox of human psychology that while people remember criticism, they respond to praise. The former makes them defensive and therefore unlikely to change, while the latter produces confidence and the desire to perform better. Managers who build up their strengths can reach their highest potential.” And, I would add, will discover strengths they did not know they had.

This has important implications for all kinds of organisations and institutions. Many corporate leaders have the sense that they are sitting on deep wells of talent, that frustratingly remain hidden underground. Substantial resources are deployed in the pursuit of “talent management”, with all kinds of personality tests, training programmes, mentorship and coaching consuming ever larger budgets, with hard to measure impact.

Perhaps we should talk about “unleashing” talent, rather than “managing” it. It is obviously not the whole solution, but I am convinced that companies could, at very little cost, unchain surprising levels of commitment and productivity by systematically identifying, affirming and making use of the strengths and talents of staff at all levels. Surely, in any team (from sports through to civil society organisations to companies) you get the best results by identifying and honing people’s strengths, rather than scratching around trying to turn their weakest qualities into marginally better qualities. If their job requires regular deployment of their weaker qualities, then they are in the wrong job.

A detailed discussion of how to go about this is a discussion for another day – but here are some thoughts:

  • Forget about “balanced feedback”. You will hold staff accountable for poor performance or give constructive criticism whenever necessary. You will dole out specific praise (“I really liked the way you summarised the discussion at the end of the meeting”) whenever possible.
  • You will cultivate a culture of generous (but genuine) affirmation amongst managers and colleagues – really giving credit when it is due.
  • You can find rituals for positive feedback and affirmation up and down the management structure. This is also a way for staff to encourage managers’ better habits. This is not about “salesperson of the month” type awards that foster competition and remind everyone else that they are not the salesperson of the month.
  • You will design training programmes to (identify and) develop existing strengths, not to paper over weaknesses. The athletic team’s champion hurdler will never win the hammer throw event. This is so obvious in sports teams, and so often ignored in other spheres of life.
  • You will build teams that draw on the strengths of each member, rather than trying to make everyone excel at everything.

Two caveats are necessary about doing this in a real and realistic way.

The first is that this is not about continually heaping people with false or half-hearted praise. Almost everyone can see right through that, and it undermines the project completely.

And the second caveat is to steer clear of some of the more extreme versions of positive psychology and the “power of positive thinking”, which suggest that you can achieve anything in the world if you only believe in yourself enough. That leads often enough to disaster, failure and guilt for “not trying hard enough”.

In summary I am asserting the following: That individual productivity and wellbeing depend largely on each individual being aware of their full range of talents and strengths, and the confidence and opportunity to make use of them; that this internal capability can be cultivated and reinforced by regular and realistic affirmation of each individual’s strengths; that most companies have not even begun to unleash the talent at their disposal, because they focus on weaknesses (euphemistically called “development areas”) rather than strengths and that each company could achieve a quantum leap in personal satisfaction and team performance if they focused on recognising, affirming and utilising the strengths of staff at all levels.

Thornhill specialises in helping organisations to develop effective leaders and improve their performance through 360° feedback. Investing in leaders results in successful organisations and happier employees. We have helped thousands of leaders receive feedback resulting in personal insight, powerful transformation and more effective performance.

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[i] Cohen G and Sherman D The psychology of change: Self affirmation and social psychological intervention. The Annual Review of Psychology, 2014

[ii] Laura Morgan Roberts, et al How to play to your strengths. Harvard Business Review, January 2005

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