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The Problem With (Too Much) Encouragement

Straight talk, given in love with a smile, is one of the best gifts we can offer a person. I often ask permission to be candid before I share critical feedback. This is usually appreciated and works well for me.
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Photograph taken by Paul Johnson and used with his permission.

"You're the best!"
"You are right on track!"
"You can do anything!"
"Your resume is perfect!"

I really like encouragement. Like most people, I like to receive it and share it with the people in my life. The positive aspects of encouragement are numerous, but do we ever consider for a moment that too much encouragement is a bad thing? One group struggling with the adverse effects of other's good intentions is individuals in career transition.

As a partner in a national executive search firm, I have met countless job seekers from generation Y to baby boomers over the years. Having a sizable network and a reputation for helping professionals in need of advice, I am often referred to these good people on a weekly basis. By the time I encounter them, they have usually been looking for work for at least a month, with some having been out of work for well over a year. I am almost always surprised when I discover that the candid advice I offer in our meeting, for getting back on track in their job search, is often the first time they have heard critical coaching on ways to improve or have been suggested changes in their strategy. When I probe as to why, I usually discover their circle of friends is providing wonderful encouragement, but almost no critical and helpful feedback.

Again, encouragement itself is not a bad thing. But too much encouragement, plus the absence of candid advice, can potentially cripple the job search efforts of the friends we care about and ultimately delay them finding employment. What can be done?

Let's consider some common reasons why people only want to offer encouragement:

• They fear giving candid feedback will lower the other person's self-esteem or hurt their feelings.

• Political correctness has seeped into our culture like a disease and people seem more reluctant than ever to have authentic and meaningful conversations.

• They could be part of the generation of parents (or they may be children of these parents) who only want to offer praise and encouragement to their children. When we insist that every child wins a trophy for simply being on the team or we consistently tell our kids they are amazing for often mediocre or average effort, we are setting them up for failure in the real world.

What are some of the negative outcomes of giving too much encouragement (without candid feedback)?

• The job seeker loses valuable time because they are not addressing their real issues. They simply never knew because no one told them.

• An overdose of encouragement leads to over inflated and unrealistic expectations not connected to reality.

• The job seeker is often to subjected to bigger disappointment and hurt from the flawed job search strategy nobody addressed, versus the short term pain of hearing from a friend that changes are necessary.

• The problem grows exponentially worse over time. As a job seeker gets to a certain period of the search, let's say six months or more, there is a definite fear of hurting their confidence and self-esteem, and giving candid advice is avoided more than ever.

Let's consider four practical suggestions for the job seeker:

• Balance your circle of friends with people who will tell you the truth, even if it hurts! These are the people who care enough about you to share what you might not want to hear. They are to be highly valued.

• Seek out feedback from people beyond your network of friends -- old co-workers, old bosses, recruiters, etc. -- and seek out their candid assessment of your approach to finding a new job. They will likely have no agenda and their feedback can be enormously beneficial.

• Give your friends (and others) permission to be candid. You will likely have to make it clear you are sincerely giving them permission to be brutally honest about your job search or they will fear offending you.

• Try to be more self-aware and humble. This is not easy, but it is important to acknowledge that the issue may be you. Maybe you turn people off in interviews because you do all the talking. Maybe your resume is awful and doesn't adequately explain your career history. Maybe you have a poor elevator pitch. Whatever the issues, acknowledge that you can always improve.

I truly understand that being unemployed is not easy. I am faced with the problem every day in my professional life and know the real pain, both emotional and financial, job seekers are experiencing as they pursue work. It is because I care that I wrote this post.

Let's make more of an effort to share candid feedback with anyone, not just job seekers, who seek our opinion. What is to be gained by having them leave us with less than our honest opinion? Straight talk, given in love with a smile, is one of the best gifts we can offer a person. I often ask permission to be candid before I share critical feedback. This is usually appreciated and works well for me.

If you are a job seeker, stop accepting meaningless platitudes and insist that your friends, advisors and family tell you what they really think. Be prepared to be stung and uncomfortable, but in the long run you will be grateful as you make the corrections necessary to find your next job and get back to work. Gainful employment will usually trump the temporary buzz of feeling encouraged every time.

For more by Randy Hain, click here.

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