The importance of a ‘culture of encouragement’ in organisations and communities

If you think back in your work – in whatever setting you operate within – alongside the passion and commitment you may have personally brought to the role, you might have noticed the people who have helped and supported you on the way. This can be in variety of ways… It might have started with a teacher or a supportive relation and, as your career and life progresses, it might have been friends or work colleagues. For me, my passion for military history came from my history teacher Mr Maddison, and my interest in group work emerged from my youth work lecturer David Clark. We know a Mr Hewlett encouraged a certain Bill Gates!

Take a few minutes and think back in you life – consider who were the people who gave you encouragement. What do they do and how did they support you? Create a list of the key elements in the ways those people gave you encouragement.

Now translate these elements to your work life – to the organisations and companies. Have you had the same experience? Were those key elements present and were they supporting a culture of encouragement? In these times of austerity and retrenchment, such a culture can be an early casualty.

My view is that it’s in these challenging times that the culture of engagement is essential. Returning to Paul Kennedy’s book Engineers of Victory – the problem solvers of WW2 and his chapter on problem solving in history, he identifies the culture of encouragement (I’ve read this book twice, and wonder if it’s one of the best OD books I’ve read – a perfect example of obliquity).

Creativity in history

Churchill, who – operating in a time of complexity and massive human challenges – managed to shift the system through his ability to recognise talent and initiative, foster unorthodoxy in people in people and give them a chance exemplifies this. It was Churchill that brought Admiral Ramsey to organise the Dunkirk evacuation and it was Admiral Ramsey who masterminded the naval side of D Day – one of the most complex operations ever mounted.

There are many examples of Churchill’s own unorthodox ways but equally there were other people who supported such culture such as General Slim in Burma, who encouraged at all levels boldness and innovation. One of my favourite Bill Slim quotes is ‘when there are two equal actions always choose the bolder one’. For me, the key parts to create a culture of encouragement are to foster boldness, celebrate creativity and support a learning and collaborative environment. In our current world there maybe value in revisiting these lessons of boldness and innovation.

Creativity in the community

The OD philosophy Appreciative Inquiry, with its emphasis on building on success and strengths, can really foster a culture of encouragement where colleagues share ideas, dreams and co-create and co-design the future, supporting an atmosphere of generativity, and building resilience, to adapt and move forward. An example of this can be found on our web site and the short minute video Back on your feet, which demonstrates how AI with supportive hostel staff can support a culture of encouragement for hostel residents coping with very difficult and challenging lives.

A more recent example is our AI Dream workshop, to set out the vision for Imagine Anfield (a community plan for one of the most disadvantaged communities in UK), where a small group set a radical vision for the project with a brilliant example of co-creating and co-designing working within a culture of encouragement. This workshop was a culmination of a process where there had been AI training linked to ongoing person support by Appreciating People staff and the local neighbourhood organisation ABCC, supporting an atmosphere where encouraging each other was the norm. For me, this was not about individual leadership but about creating a situation where a mutually supporting collective leadership was present where there is a leader in every chair encouraging all.

As a final thought, reflect on how you can help and support a culture of encouragement. What would be the smallest step and the most radical one you could take to support a culture of encouragement?

Tim Slack