Encouragement is the oxygen of life
Running on Autopilot
by Tony Copple

Somewhere out there are people who know they are good, step up to leadership positions, and head up projects which are successful. For every one of these there are thousands who feel committed or convicted to fill a void, take a leading role, and then do the best they can. I address this second group.

You were suckered into chairing the committee. You think you know some of what has to be done. The people who volunteered to help you are even less competent than you. You pray for help. Somehow you manage. Things aren't great, but they are acceptable. You would love to receive continual flashes of inspiration, but unless those prayers are answered, you don't notice anything in particular. You keep on keeping on, and finally the project is done. You heave a sigh and hope the auditors don't find out things you never even thought of.

During the project you longed for some sort of feedback that you were doing a good job. You hoped the people you were working with would take you on one side and say that they liked the direction things were going in. But no-one did. You probably can relate to world class violinist Jason Bell who busked for four hours for almost no response from the crowd.

Maybe your boss might have given you some encouraging comments. In the third week he told you that the weekly report needed more detail. You have no idea whether this meant (a) the rest of the work you had done was excellent, but this piece needed a minor nudge, or, (b) he thinks all the work is shoddy but chose this example to highlight. Your pride keeps you from asking him if it's (a) or (b).

If you are a leader in any field, it is a lonely position. Even if you are doing everything right, you will still receive criticism by virtue of your visibility. I contend that a leader who is not being criticised is either not leading where others fear to tread (the function of a leader) or is an autocrat using fear as a tool. Barbed comments can sometimes contain valuable advice which can be turned to advantage, if it is not rejected out of hand by a leader who cannot handle rejection. I am most impressed by leaders who survive incredible forces of criticism against them, just turning to the next phase of the job. President Clinton is an example.

Or: scenario #2. You are actually the very best person for the job. But there's no way to prove it, particularly in your mind. You do everything according to your training, and the end result seems satisfactory. No one except your mother calls to thank or congratulate you. To ask colleagues or friends for their opinion on how you did betrays a lack of self confidence. (In their eyes, you did well, as you always do, so why would they make a special effort to congratulate you? It's your job, isn't it?) So you are left to your own thoughts and whatever confidence you have built up in the past to convince yourself the job was well done. This situation applies in war, when people just have to do their best, but never know if it was good. It also applies in politics and journalism, where good work goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, but make an error or take an unpopular stand and you are famous overnight and everyone wants to criticise you. The same phenomenon exists in church work, but there is a difference here. Christian workers should be working for God, and receive their encouragement from Him. If you are a Christian worker, please don't expect approval or even thanks from co-workers or priests. It just seldom seems to happen, and it shouldn't matter to you if your sights are righly set on The Lord. The poor man's wisdom is despised (Ecclesiastes 9:13-18), yet "the quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools" (v 17). People are more ready to acknowledge and encourage the more prominent members of society than those of less (financial) standing.

Al Gore's knowledge of public problems in the United States is breathtaking. Yet, despite his handling of these myriad areas wisely and well, Mr Gore is unconvinced, at a deep level, of his own abilities. Many of us wonder whether our self doubts are indeed justified. Usually we can assuage them with the passing scenery of our own accomplishments as we move through life.
- taken from "A life in the wake of greatness," by Dick Morris, published in the Ottawa Citizen, page A5, Nov 8,2000

You wonder occasionally how your image matches up to your self-image. Maybe other folk see you as somewhat less of a force in the firm than you do. Perhaps your image of yourself falls below how others view you and your capabilities. "We are almost always either less or more competent than we believe ourselves to be. The unconscious, however, knows who we are" (-M Scott Peck)

Talking about image, many kids worry incessantly about their physical looks, believing that they are too plain, ever to attract the opposite sex. They do not notice that often the beautiful people never do seem to find lasting happiness, while average-looking and even ugly people seem to reach silver weddings. Only with life experience do people realize that looks are not a key ingredient in love, after initial attraction. There is a club for the ugly, Club de Brutti, that dispells some of these myths. Frequently, kids who are extremely attractive believe themselves to be ugly because no-one ever tells them otherwise.

People seldom take the trouble to give unsolicited praise for anything. Maybe they are so busy just keeping their own lives from collapsing, or maybe they really don't care. The result is we seldom receive acknowledgement or encouraging feedback. In voluntary work this is a particularly bad problem. Take this web site. Since I started it several years back, few people have ever commented on it, and those who did include my son, and another who so impressed me with her initiative to contact a stranger with praise that I married her. I have no idea if it is good, average or awful. My son and my wife are biased, and I'm too close to tell. I just put my faith in the great philosopher, Rick Nelson: "You can't please everybody so you gotta please yourself." My wife is a volunteer DJ on her own radio program Window of Opportunity on CKCU-FM. While she now enjoys contacts with listeners and folk singers across the country, I've seldom heard that any of her local friends have commented or shown any interest or appreciation. I think she's a heroine for broadcasting live every week and the show is first class. In 2008 I made a video of our office "fun day" including a baseball game and time afterwards at a pub. I even used original music that I had composed and played. I posted it on YouTube and put on to DVD as an archive for the office. It is a unique snapshot in time of the staff and consultants in the office. To create it required skills in still and movie photography, music composition and performace, audio recording, digital editing and file conversion, web programming and Internet posting. All this was accomplished in the weekend of the event. Only one of my colleagues has ever commented about it in any way; my immediate boss. I don't know what to infer from what could be interpreted as a conspiracy of silence. The most likely explanation is total absense of the gift of encouragment among people I consider my friends. The saddest examples of failure to praise are children. How many kids never receive praise, acknowledgement and encouragement from their parents and teachers. If their own family don't acknowledge them, what chance that others will. I always remember the parents of my sister praising her to my father. I swear he was amazed that anyone thought so well of her. Parents start off badly, and then appear to get even worse at appreciating the talents of their children as the years pass.

The better companies make efforts to recognize their outstanding employees, in many cases by financial bonuses. But an employee can be encouraged more effectively by words of praise. The bonuses seem to continue time after time to the same group of more talented employees; the very people who no longer need financial stimulation. A word of praise is free, but can be more powerful than money, and can be given to any employee at any level. It happens rarely.

While most people are slow to praise, many are quick with their sarcasm. It has become a national sport to malign success. As soon as an artist achieves fame, the knockers move in and pour cold water on their achievement. When a company shows exceptional performance, the regulators assume wrongdoing and they get sued. In everyday home living, sarcasm against family members and characters on TV has become far more comfortable than praise. "You only hurt the one you love" sang Connie Francis.

Or: scenario #3. The guy thinks he's great, but he isn't. He ploughs ahead with his project or performance, brimming with false self-confidence engendered by the motivational posters stuck all over his home, but actually he's not up to the job and never will be. Yet he gets away with it because the yardstick used to assess him by his equally incompetent superiors is not his ability but his attitude and confidence, both of which are false indicators. Mr Bean is a hilarious example of scenerio #3, and his confidence is the result of na´vetÚ. Those of us without much ability have learned to compensate with "attitude" and "energy", and they can work pretty well. Fake it!

So what we do is to run on autopilot, dead reckoning our course towards the goal, and assuming what we are doing is satisfactory. At least that's what the better leaders do. The less fortunate resign, give up, take prozac, and fade away, determined never to step out again into the spotlight. How good is your autopilot? Is your self image healthy enough to generate the confidence that you are doing things rightly? Are you resilient enought to withstand the inevitable criticism when it comes; learn from it and carry on without letting it dent your self-esteem. That's the only route. It all comes down to competence. It's your first project of this type, and neither you nor your colleagues know whether you are competent. Maybe you do not have the ability for this task. Or maybe you are the best person for the job. You'd better believe the latter if it's to work out. Your belief will only produce good results if you do indeed possess or can learn the necessary skill and ability.

The Peter Principle

"If you can't learn to do something well,
learn to enjoy doing it poorly."