Motivate Employees with Good Advice But InvisiblyConsider this, from Science Daily, Dec. 1, 2010:

New research by University of Minnesota psychologists shows how social support benefits are maximized when provided “invisibly” — that is, without the support recipient being aware that they are receiving it. The study, “Getting in Under the Radar: A Dyadic View of Invisible Support,” is published in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In the study, graduate student Maryhope Howland and Professor Jeffry A. Simpson suggest there may be something unique about the emotional support behaviors that result in recipients being less aware of receiving support. Receiving social support, such as advice or encouragement, is typically thought of as positive, a generous act by one person yielding benefits for another in a time of need. Effective support should make someone feel better and more competent, it is generally acknowledged. However, what is supposedly considered “support” may make someone feel vulnerable, anxious or ineffective in the face of a stressor, Howland and Simpson found.

It seems to me that this study is as relevant for managers as it is for romantic partners, who were the actual subjects in the study. It is a truism that employees need support, and that enlightened management does all it can to provide support. But this study suggests that if the support is provided too obviously, too visibly, it can actually make a person feel worse. Support that is too blatant risks making the recipient feel as if he needed support, which is not a feeling most people in the workplace feel comfortable acknowledging. Well-intended though it may be, visible support can backfire, and make the employee feel resentful, insecure, and worried.

So what is a manager to do? Withhold support? We know that causes problems. Give support? We see that that can cause problems, too. So what then? Send anonymous notes of support? Sneak up from behind the employee and whisper in her ear, “We value you!” then disappear before she can turn and see you? Kidding aside, how you offer support can turn the well-intended but clumsy offer into the kind of support that actually boosts performance.

The best support comes naturally, organically; not on cue, not on script. The best support feels as if it is simply a part of the ongoing conversation in the workplace. It enters seamlessly into the discussion. If the manager intended to be supportive, the employee never detected that intention. Spouses yearn to hear the words, “I love you,” but if they are asked for or sound the least bit rehearsed, they mean nothing, or can be counterproductive. Same deal at work. Employees yearn to feel valued, but if the manager doles out statements of valuation he can actually undercut the employee’s feeling of worth.

Making an employee feel valued is one of the most important things a manager can do (my book Shine goes into some of the ways, based on the latest psychological evidence, that managers can bring out the best in people). But as the study by Howland and Simpson shows, it is also one of the most difficult things for a manager to do.

The takeaway: Learn how to value people subtly. How? Subtle actions, like making eye contact; asking a person his or her opinion on something, anything; noticing the person, not complimenting, simply noticing; recalling something the person said yesterday, last week, or last month; giving a high five; or recalling a past success when times are tough. These are subtle expressions of support — and if you start to think about it, you can come up with scores more.

But the best are the ones you don’t even think of. You just do them naturally, invisibly, because you feel what you feel. You’re glad to be working on your team and you show it. That’s the best support.

What works for you? How do you show support? What kinds of support make you feel the most valued?

About the Author

Edward Hallowell, MD, is a psychiatrist, served as an instructor at Harvard Medical School for 20 years, and is the director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Massachusetts. He has authored eighteen books, including the national bestseller Driven to Distraction, that have sold millions of copies.

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