In Praise of Encouragement

It’s always fun to cycle through an intersection and glance at the drivers waiting for the light to change in their favor. There’s a moment of “There goes a bicycle.” And then the driver notices all the panniers on our bikes and you see his or her eyebrows go up. If there’s another person in the car, I often see a conversation start up. I love those moments. The people in the car are either thinking, “Man, those people are badass!” or, most likely, “Those people are dumbass!” Either way, we’re leaving an impression.  And it gives me a little buzz.

But not anywhere as big a buzz as when someone actively cheers us on. Most of the time drivers give us encouragement via a “Toot Toot” on the horn. Sometimes a passenger sticks a hand out the window and gives us a thumbs up. (Not surprisingly, the majority of the cars cheering us on are sporting a bike rack.) We’ve had bikers give us very enthusiastic waves as they roar by. This is particularly great when it’s a big group of bikers and you get 10 or 12 leather-clad arms raised. In Colorado a couple sitting on their front porch literally cheered us as we cycled by.

The random acts of encouragement and praise happened most often when we’ve been slogging up big, steep climbs. It’s also one of the most impactful times to get encouragement because that’s when the riding was at its hardest and we most needed it. The toots we occasionally got as we cycled along relatively flat roads were nice but I was feeling good already and it felt more like just a wave. Getting encouragement from strangers when we were creeping up a steep climb and my body was begging me to stop really buoyed our spirits. Those folks were telling us, “We see you are doing something tough, and we notice.” And for a little while, at least, we both pedaled stronger.

Praising Folks for Real Life Efforts

We’ve gotten a lot of this kind of encouragement over the months we’ve taken to cycle across the US, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about how external motivation and validation relates to “normal situations” – like work or when folks are going through tough times.

There are two things about these incidents that really struck me. First, we rarely give strangers encouragement and praise, so that was startling. Second, we got so much more praise over this trip than we do in our work and personal lives, yet the tasks we were tackling in the office or at home were often a lot harder than cycling across the US.

Even if there’s nothing you can do to help someone in his or her project, simply acknowledging that someone is working hard on a long/hard project or working through a tough personal issue is important. I didn’t expect (or want) any of those folks to carry our bags up the mountain, but it felt good that people noticed we were doing something hard.

It’s All in the Timing

When we get back to the San Francisco Bay Area we expect that our friends and family will clap us on the shoulders and congratulate us on this amazing adventure. It really is an adventure and we’ll be thrilled to share that achievement with them.

But praise, while important and greatly appreciated, is after the fact. Positive strokes when it’s all said and done are great, but getting positive strokes through  encouragement mid-task is when it’s most needed.  Think about your colleagues and your direct reports. Are you taking the time to acknowledge and encourage them during the project?

So, be good to each other and take the time to tell someone you appreciate the effort they’re putting out. They’re likely to remember that encouragement more than praise when it’s all said and done.



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