The Power of Affirmation
Positivity is Power
Lately I have been thinking more about how powerful affirmation can be. When I was younger, I assumed that people who are good at what they do, know it. I didn’t always think about acknowledging people for their skills, or what effect that might have on them. My Mom continuously emphasized the importance of writing thank you notes not only for gifts, but when someone does something for you. As kids we found this to be a real drag and it seemed an insurmountable task to write a few lines in a card. We would contend that we had already said thank you to Aunt Gayle in person upon receiving the gift, so why did we have to say it again. Mom would patiently explain that taking the time to write the card and send it was very meaningful and it made the person feel good to receive it.
I have been working on introducing my 7 year old Gabriella to these same concepts. During this year’s Girl Scout cookie sale, Gabby received several generous donations from my friends. They didn’t want the cookies, but wanted to help her reach her goal of 200 boxes and support the Girl Scout tradition of promoting confidence, character, leadership, and entrepreneurship. The boxes they bought were donated to U.S. soldiers serving overseas. Gabby was not thrilled when I had her writing thank you notes, even though she has personalized note cards and return address labels, as well as Wonder Woman stamps. Upon receiving Gabby’s card, one friend reached out and said that it made his day to receive it and that he smiled every time he looked at it. Then he said “Great job mom!” and I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. So apparently, there is a whole lot more to thank you notes than I had ever realized. Letting people know that they are appreciated or when they are doing something well can be very powerful.
Last week my high school band director passed away suddenly at age 60. He was the epitome of inspiration. A phenomenal clarinet player who performed at Carnegie Hall with legendary greats such as Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti, Mr. P chose to spend the bulk of his time instilling his love for music in 9th to 12th graders. Now looking back, I wonder how he had the patience to work with us and help us create performances that we were proud of. He emphasized that every part in the band was important, no matter how small. During my clarinet lessons, if I was working on a difficult solo or preparing for an audition and felt overwhelmed, Mr. P. would use one of his favorite sayings “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” He motivated me with words of praise when I accomplished something that I had been working hard at, and endorsed me in front of younger students who were just starting on their musical journey. He had done the same for those before me, so I had older students and more accomplished musicians to look up to and younger students to mentor and encourage. I hope that he knew how much he taught me about life and about achieving goals. I wish I could have told him one more time.
Not long ago, I expressed to a colleague that it’s important to me to be acknowledged. If I manage a project well or achieve a milestone and it is recognized, I am even more highly motivated. He commented that some people need affirmation while others don’t, and he would rather receive a raise or a bonus. But money is just another form of affirmation. People who say they are “self-motivated” or “driven” still need affirmation in some form. It may be receiving tenure, getting comp time for long hours in the field, being invited as a keynote lecturer, winning an award, getting a promotion, a shout out in the company newsletter, or banking money for retirement. No matter what types of affirmation motivate you, they make you feel good and increase performance and productivity, or at worst, get you through one more month of night work to finish the project.
Are talented women and men leaving the industry because they haven’t been motivated by some form of affirmation? I believe they are. I think the most effective managers (and band directors), learn what motivates their team and use it to advance their projects and their company. I have been privileged to work for an amazing mentor that does this so naturally that it looks effortless. For others of us, it requires more thought, especially when faced with projects that stretch the limits of your team’s technical experience or with limited time or budget. But I believe affirmation and endorsement of your team members is well worth the time and effort it may take you. If you are worried that complimenting your boss or manager is going to make you look like a suck up, please get over it. Supervisors deserve affirmation too.
If you think some of your team members could be performing better, ask them what motivates them and set mini goals for them to work toward. Many people lose motivation when there is no end in sight or when they don’t understand why they aren’t being promoted for example. Don’t assume that your stellar performance speaks for itself. If you think you should be progressing to the next professional level, request an interim performance evaluation where you can talk to your supervisor and come up with a list of things that you need to do to get there. Appreciate that for supervisors this may be very difficult to put into words. The company may not have specific criteria for each staffing level and your supervisor knows you aren’t “ready”, but doesn’t have guidelines to refer to. There is often the “chicken or the egg scenario” where the employee isn’t being given the opportunity to manage projects because they have no experience managing projects. It isn’t always practical or possible to start someone off with an easy project to manage (does that exist?) because it depends on the current backlog for the company or whether there are field projects that need to be staffed for example. But although it will involve some difficult conversations and effort for both supervisor and supervisee, this type of candid management is what the industry needs to grow responsible and assertive engineers. It all goes back to affirmation and how you use it to your advantage.
One more personal anecdote: I was at the dr. for a routine visit. Mine has paperwork that asks questions about family dynamics and how much you sleep and what activities you are involved with. She looked up after reading it and said, “I don’t know if anyone has told you this but I just want to tell you that you are a Rockstar.” Well that made my whole week. Maybe she did it because she likes getting my co-pay or out of pity because of the dark circles under my eyes, or maybe she really did think I was the next Stevie Nicks. I don’t care which if she keeps the compliments coming.
So share the wealth! Thank your mentors and teachers and those who inspire you. Let your staff know when they are doing a good job. If you are in a position to award spot bonuses, try to use the pot up and ask for a larger budget next year. A $50 Amex gift card or tickets to a sporting event may not seem that significant to you, but it could make a difference in someone’s outlook. Harness the power of affirmation to the advantage of you and your team!