Fostering engagement starts with acknowledging everyone’s strengths, not least your own

Updated: Mar 2

When we are too attuned to seeing our own weaknesses, we are more inclined to do the same when it comes to others around us.

I grew up with a very firm belief that self-praise is no praise and I subsequently discovered that most of my generation did likewise. I now understand it was one of many values that our parents and teachers, reinforced by society, believed were important to impart to us. They believed values such as this one would help us more easily navigate our way through life.

The positive side of this was that I became very driven by the idea of earning the respect and acceptance of others. The downside is that I was never happy with how well I had done and was always striving to do a better job.

Even when I’d received a compliment for a job well done I rarely acknowledged it, or if I did, I did not fully believe it.

As I evolved, I became more reflective and attracted many wise teachers into my life. I began to understand that this great strength of always striving to do better was equally my biggest weakness. Because I could not acknowledge my own achievements, I could not see the great achievements of others.

That doesn’t count I thought that I had fully acknowledged my blind spot until it came up at a recent forum. A member of the peer-to-peer leadership forum brought a challenge to the day. We decided to name his challenge ‘Fostering ownership and engagement in a new process’.

The business leader told a story of how his employees had responded to implementing a lean approach to process improvement. He was very surprised at how well the employees had taken on board the responsibility for implementing many new improvements in the workplace.

So what was his challenge if everything seemed to be going so well? He feared that the enthusiasm and energy for the new approach would not last. Bit by bit, the reason for this fear emerged. He doubted his ability to lead.

He saw himself as not being a great motivator of groups of people.

He preferred to go around and chat to employees individually. He was assuming that his great weakness as he saw it would inevitably lead to a petering out of enthusiasm for the new lean approach. He essentially disqualified the positives of his leadership style.

His fellow participants quickly pointed out that the initial response to the process improvements was no accident, that his great gift of engaging with the employees in his one-to-one chats with them had fostered a culture that made it possible for the employees to row in behind the new initiative.

A critical aspect of leadership is a transfer of enthusiasm

This is where peer-to-peer coaching really comes into its own. Other leaders in the room, listening objectively while actively unpacking the scenario are able to see leadership resources the self-critical leader did not see in himself. For his part, the first step is acknowledging the strengths. The second is making a conscious effort to stop being overly self-critical. It is only then that the creativity bubbles up.

Indeed, I have noticed a huge improvement in the results of both my own individual coaching and in the participants in the peer-to-peer leadership coaching forums when we focus on noticing the strengths and resources of those we interact with.

The greatest blind spots we have are to the abilities and gifts we possess.

We saw it in the room that day, as our self-doubting leader became enthusiastic about his abilities, and was able to change his view that the new lean processes at work were doomed to failure.

If you think about it, the ability to transfer enthusiasm is a huge part of successful leadership. Infectious enthusiasm can never be faked with the repetition of platitudes like ‘Believe in yourself’ or ‘You’re doing a great job’; most employees and colleagues have a sixth sense for fake or forced positive thinking. It was precisely this leader’s ability to pass on enthusiasm for the new lean processes in his one-to-one chats with his people that made the initial response so positive.

When he heard specific examples of his great qualities as a leader from peers, he could tell they were not platitudes, and so he began to appreciate his strengths.

Be the change you want in the world – Gandhi.

But to go back to my opening confession, hyper-critical me had to learn to ask myself ‘What did I do well?’ rather than my default question of ’How can I improve what I did?’ To look at what I’ve managed to achieve on my to-do list rather than on what remains to be done. It takes hard work and determination to change the internal dialogue, but it can be done.

Partner up with your inner critic

My final bit of re-framing is to thank my inner critic for driving me so hard, as he has pushed me to achieve the wisdom I now celebrate. Because I now see his patter as concern for my success, rather than criticism, we are partners, not adversaries.

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