Managing by Encouragement

By | November 8, 2013


At the risk of offending all business professors, management/leadership consultants and others who recognize differences between “leadership” and “management,” the title of this paper was chosen arbitrarily, because, in this case, one can lead or manage by encouragement. The concept works in either case – if handled properly.

As with most concepts, exceptions are out there, such as in the military, emergency services and other situations where immediate responses to orders and situations are mandatory, and where taking time to use encouraging words or actions could be dangerous to all concerned.

“Encouragement” as used here does not include flattery, false praise, overdoses of “positive thinking,” giving extraordinary recognition to ordinary accomplishments and the like. It is, instead, the use of words or actions that contribute to hope, confidence, security and support in the minds of employees.  It is a way to convey “I care….” or “The company cares….” to employees.

Managing or leading by encouragement does not mean that mistakes or shortcomings are overlooked when they become known; that employee discipline is never practiced; that leaders cannot be firm when and where necessary; or that employees’ feelings are placed above all else. Deadlines still have to be met; quality and quantity standards must be maintained; employees should not be allowed to harass other employees in any fashion; and mutual respect must be practised among all personnel. When problems occur in these or other areas, firmness and explicitness are right and necessary. At times, managers or leaders have no other choice but to put on their “game faces” and to deal with problems. Handled properly, it is possible to be firm and fair and not destroy persons as persons by dealing solely with the issues. It is important to carefully and clearly state the reasons for any actions taken.

At this juncture, a few words on “constructive criticism” may be appropriate.

Conventionally, the concept has manifested itself in the form of a supervisor talking to a subordinate privately (hopefully) and letting that person know all the positive things that that employee is doing, and then shifting gears to lower the boom on some area(s) of shortcomings, which usually ends up rendering all of the positive remarks for naught. The employee knows that something negative is going to be expressed at the end of the speech, and doesn’t fully absorb or appreciate any positive comments that precede the last part of the encounter.

Rather than go through all of the foregoing, it is better to deal primarily with the problem(s) that needs to be addressed, and to do so in a firm and fair manner. After this, it is time to encourage the employee and to express confidence in that employee’s ability and willingness to perform better or whatever is required to be done. Being consistent in how these situations are handled will also help to avoid accusations of favoritism.

One of the risks of emphasizing different styles of leadership or management is that it’s easy to forget that the bottom line is still the bottom line, and how it is reached may be immaterial at times as long as goals are achieved. In most cases, CEOs and stockholders are only concerned about results – not how they are achieved. In the short run, most companies can get away with about any style of leadership. In the long run, poor management and leadership will end up being self-defeating absolutely and relative to competitors.

 Can Anyone Lead or Manage by Encouragement?

No, everyone cannot manage or lead by encouragement. Theory X types will never make it in this arena unless they undergo some radical transformations in attitudes and actions. The autocratic, my-way-or-the-highway types, those with the Big Kahuna complex and those who feel that they must operate similarly in order to “win” against employees (as they see their role) can’t do this.

Control-oriented people – which include the types just mentioned – are not disposed or inclined to operate with encouragement being an integral part of their management philosophy. In fact, based upon this writer’s experience in recruiting, interviewing, training and supervising nearly 1,000 people, plus analyzing labor-management problems for dozens of CEOs and writing a book about control-oriented people and those whom they control (Controllers & Rollers: Do You Control Or Roll?, Thinc Corporation, Batesville, Mississippi, 2006), control-oriented people are basically insecure and generally unwilling and incapable of managing or leading by encouragement. However, if they get the results that they want, they probably aren’t concerned about how they got them.

Not only are some people incapable of leading or managing by encouragement, but the philosophy of their company may be totally contrary to this. Some companies have set themselves up by past practices (i.e., ineptness, dictatorial practices, etc.) to preclude being able to lead or manage by encouragement.

For example, if management has not been pro-active on a consistent basis, employees may have built up a significant amount of resentment, as well as resistance to management directives and perhaps even to incentives offered by management. An attempt to practice managing by encouragement in this situation is likely to be perceived as mockery and as being meaningless.

Why Bother to Try to Manage by Encouragement?

If nothing seems to be working as it should for a company, and if a variety of other management/leadership styles have been tried and found to be wanting, why not try this?

In order to make this work, a supervisor or a company cannot move from autocratic to “encouragematic” overnight. Employees who have been accustomed to a certain style of management and expect it every day will have difficulty believing such a radical change. They might even suspect that they are being set up for something and, consequently, they will be slow to respond to change.

In the long run, once management by encouragement has been initiated and performed consistently, the results will show up in improved horizontal and vertical relationships; reduced tension on the job; and improved morale and more, all of which will ultimately have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Is this pie in the sky stuff that looks good on paper but doesn’t work on the plant floor? No. it can and will work if implemented correctly, with appropriately trained people in leadership positions. This writer used this approach to turn around a 20-office district successfully, moving it from the lowest 15 percent among 28 district offices in a region to the top 15 percent in one year in terms of percentage increases in business volume and net profits.

Obviously, taking over a district that had been run somewhat poorly made it easier to improve by making only the slightest changes, but much effort was expended in changing training materials and approaches; emphasizing mutual respect, regardless of job, economic or social standing, and education; and presenting all of this with enthusiasm and passion. The benefits of the team approach and the financial benefits to all were also presented, and repeated from time to time in the context of the “why” and “how” of achieving district goals. Leadership or management by encouragement can also help to minimize problems that require employee discipline, and lessen the need to discipline employees.

What’s the Best Way to Begin to Manage by Encouragement?

If little or nothing has been done heretofore that is representative of management by encouragement, an employee survey – preferably conducted by an independent consultant to enhance the appearance of objectivity – can be given to determine problem areas. It is very important to explain the nature and purpose of the survey before it is administered, in order to ensure as much objectivity and participation as possible. This action also conveys an attitude of care by the company for how employees feel about things, which itself is a part of managing by encouragement.

As a caveat for surveys, care should be taken to avoid double questions, since it will be impossible for anyone to determine which item within a question was the subject of the response for good or ill. Secondly, every survey should have a category of “Don’t Know” as a possible response. This serves to indicate the quality and frequency of communication within an organization. The category of “Does Not Apply” (or “Not Applicable”) is distinctly different from “Don’t Know” in meaning. Thirdly, value-laden terms should be defined, or questions should be stated in such a way as to clarify what is meant by terms such as “good,” “bad,” “weak,” “strong” or other value-laden terms. When such terms are not defined, every respondent applies his or her own definition.

A good survey should show both strong and weak areas in an organization; where and how employees are upset; the quality of the leadership of the organization; and other problems that need to be addressed. Additional meetings may be needed with employees to clarify the nature of some responses and the intensity of feelings about some matters. One way to begin this is to have an open-ended section at the end of the survey where employees can say anything that they feel still needs to be said. (For more on surveys, see this writer’s article entitled, “Conducting an Organizational Survey of Employees.”)

After a thorough analysis of the results, the organization should establish a priority list to address problems and let the employees know what it plans to do to correct problems. This itself is a start toward managing by encouragement. Positive action by organizational leadership will provide a boost in morale. This will have to be followed by retraining supervisory personnel to adjust their styles of leadership and to be consistent in doing so. Employees who have worked in discouraging environments will watch leadership personnel closely to see how “real” the change is.

The results of the survey can also be used to determine where changes need to be made in orientation and training and in supervisory training. In some cases, changes may need to be made in supervisory personnel.

Maintaining the Right Atmosphere

Maintaining an atmosphere of managing by encouragement is pretty much an “all or nothing” deal.  Once initiated, consistency of attitudes and actions must be maintained.  All people in leadership positions have to be “on board” with this philosophy.  One weak link can sabotage an entire organization, since employees can and will talk with each other about such matters.  A substantial change in company culture may be required.  (See “Using ‘Company Culture’ for Motivation & Control” by this writer for more on this.”)

This is the time for genuine leadership, not “controllership,” which is usually manifested by people who are somewhat insecure.  Identifying controllers vs. leaders and moving supervisory personnel from controllership to leadership may require some work.  (For more information on this, see this writer’s article entitled, “Controllership, Leadership & Wimpership.”)

In addition to an independent employee survey, which can be used to identify problems, this writer also has an exercise for people to determine if they are “controllers” or “rollers,” as well as a leadership exercise (“H.E.L.P.” – Hadinger Exercise in Leadership Potential) that has a companion version for subordinates.

The essence of the H.E.L.P. exercise is that leaders are asked to rate themselves from one (1) to ten (10) on various qualities and traits of leadership, followed by their subordinates rating them in the same categories.  Gaps of two (2) points or more that reflect problems (e. g., a leader rating himself at “9” for communication skills and subordinates rating that leader at “6”) are indications of areas that may require additional supervisory training.  The results of an exercise such as this enable the development of customized coaching or training programs for supervisors.

Supervisors and other leaders will have to make a conscious effort to do the following:

  1. move away from micro-managing (if such is the practice now);
  2. consciously look for “good” things that should be recognized, while not ignoring or dismissing any shortcomings that may occur;
  3. ensure a genuine open door policy;
  4. practice good listening skills, remembering that “communication” = shared understanding;
  5. maintain upbeat, positive attitudes to set the tone for the workplace;
  6. accept and confront challenges without acting or talking as if they are threatened;
  7. be friendly and accessible, but not be buddies; and treat all people as having equal worth as persons – among other things – regardless of race, gender, age, economic status, social status or any other criteria.


At the risk of using an old cliché, “Honey attracts more flies than vinegar,” it is still true, and it still works in most organizations.  Managing by encouragement requires a total commitment to do so, while ensuring that there are no weak links, such as supervisors who are insecure and who are primarily controllers instead of leaders.  Not everyone is mentally or emotionally equipped or disposed to make this commitment voluntarily.

Employee surveys are good to start turning situations around to move toward management by encouragement, which basically amounts to treating people fairly, politely, not discriminating on any basis, and regarding all people as having equal worth as persons.

Leadership evaluations may also be required to determine changes that may be needed among leadership personnel.  Once problem areas have been identified, an organization must commit to retraining personnel to overcome shortcomings in attitudes and actions toward each other and toward subordinates.

Supervisory personnel will have to move from being controllers to being genuine leaders, and to set the tone for attitudes in the workplace.

Copyright 2010, Paul E. Hadinger, MPA