The Power of Affirmation

I was visiting a church during a recent vacation. While the pastor was highlighting future activities, he announced that the youth would be conducting the evening service, which would be followed by a fundraiser. Then he paused and said with deep sincerity, "I appreciate Pastor Bill* and all he does for our youth . . ." He proceeded to publicly affirm the youth pastor, his wife, and the work they were doing. He was obviously speaking not out of obligation but out of sincere gratitude.

A couple of important things transpired during that moment. Something far greater was accomplished than just making Pastor Bill feel good. The congregation saw the high level of confidence their leader had in this staff member. This confidence strengthened Pastor Bill's credibility with the congregation, thus enhancing his leadership potential.

There is probably no way to measure the actual value and impact of public affirmation. Affirmation is one of the basic needs of all humans. To the individual it says that his efforts are noticed and appreciated and that he is on the right course. The individual generally works more diligently than ever before because he knows he is valued. Study after study has shown this result is not at all uncommon. Mark Twain put it very well, "I can live two months on one good compliment."

What affirmation communicates to the congregation is just as important. Affirmation makes it known that the leader has confidence in the person. This clearly conveys to any disgruntled individual that he will have little success in trying an end run to satisfy a personal vendetta or level a complaint. Many problems can be derailed before they ever get started.

There are a number of ways to affirm others. Let's take a look at a few.

Verbally express appreciation.

This can be done in almost any setting and any place. As in the case of Pastor Bill, affirmations can be made at the appropriate moment before the congregation. They can also be made in settings with only two or three present. An unplanned affirmation can be a very effective one. Those given in a smaller setting also make the ones given in public settings more believable.

A good rule of thumb is just to say something good every chance you get.

Empower them.

It's not enough to delegate a task to someone; you must empower the person to accomplish what you have asked him to do. Hans Finzel, in his book The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, calls delegation without empowerment "dirty delegation" and contends that nothing takes the "wind out of their sails" as quickly as this practice does.

No one ever really learns to drive a car or fly a plane until someone tosses him the keys and says, "You are on you own." When leaders empower, the staff member is free to show what he has learned.

Give them ministry opportunities on a Sunday when you are present.

Too often staff people are given speaking opportunities only when the pastor is gone. A better plan is to use them when you are present to listen to them. It says a lot to the congregation and the staff member and provides a wonderful opportunity to mentor him in his preaching skills.

Provide exposure in key settings.

Have staff members present in board meetings, planning sessions, and other church functions. As a young associate, I remember the pastor asking families for permission to allow me to take part in funeral services. The experience was invaluable; especially the day I conducted my first funeral alone.

Stand behind them and their decisions.

Nothing cuts a person off at the knees like being "hung out to dry" if the wrong person complains. Yet this happens so often when the pressure is put on leadership from some influential person in the group. Nothing will demoralize a person, put a crack in his creditability, and cause him to be afraid to ever venture out again as this will.

Once you have clearly communicated what you expect, set the boundaries, provide the time frame, and then stand behind your staff member--regardless of who complains.

Many studies have been conducted as to why leaders fail to delegate responsibility and empower at the same time. Some reasons are valid, but many are not. Most often leaders fear something going wrong that ultimately will make them look bad. This reason is never valid. "Giving away power" is risky, but essential to good leadership.

All affirmation is not done in public. Some is done privately as well. Sometimes affirmation may come in the form of correction. Those under you will make mistakes from time to time. Correction needs to be in private as much as possible. It should take place in an appropriate setting and in a calm manner. People will make mistakes. Most of them will be sincere mistakes. A TV baseball commentator, referring to a mental mistake a young ball player made, announced it as an "error of enthusiasm." When a mistake is made, it must be corrected. The purpose is not to scold the person for the mistake, but to find ways to prevent similar mistakes in the future. This time becomes a good learning experience. A good rule is to take the energy spent being angry and use it to find a positive solution to correct the mistake.

Once settled, both parties must agree the problem is over and will not resurface at a later date. Taking time to work things out affirms the person because it tells him that you believe in him enough to give him another chance.

While you are affirming others, you affirm yourself as well. As you affirm those around you, it shows others that you make good decisions, you are confident and secure, and you are a person who knows how to work with others. So, in essence, you really make yourself look good at the same time.

The same holds true for all coworkers whether they are volunteers or salaried. Look at all those who work with you. Learn about each of them. What are their emotional needs? Once you know them, then you can know how to affirm them. You will soon discover that people who are regularly affirmed are the happiest and most contented coworkers you will ever have the joy to work alongside.

* Not the pastor's real name