I have been teaching 4 and 5 day capacity building workshops in Central Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, North America, and Europe for nearly 20 years now. I have been doing between two and ten each year, mostly on leadership and HR topics to mid-level managers in both profit and non-profit organizations. It is not my main job, but something I get invited to do because I like it and some people think I’m good at it.

On my recent trip to Tehran, Iran, to teach a workshop titled Ethics and Principles of NGO Leadership, I became convinced of something I had been suspecting for a several years. That is this, the words of affirmation and encouragement I make to individual participants in the last day or two of a workshop (after I have had a chance to observe them) are exponentially more meaningful to the participants then all the new knowledge and training communicated in the 4-5 days of training. I think knowledge and skill building is critical… but it is by far not the only critical thing. Without courage and confidence, how can we expect leaders to put their new knowledge and skills into practice? It is like building on sand.

Over the past years I have made it a habit to speak customized words of affirmation to workshop participants during lunch, coffee breaks, and free times. Occasionally, I will make affirmations in front of a class, but I do this less frequently because it embarrasses some people. I might say, “I think you have a strong leadership gift, continue to use it on behalf of others” or to someone else “I am not sure if you are aware of it, but the way you handled the argument in your group tells me you are not only empathetic but extremely wise“. In addition I usually write personalized comments on the participants’ certificate of completion. Somehow, these words of encouragement are what participants seem to remember most from a week of excellent training. It proved true again for the 60 Iranian social workers and addiction counselors who participated in my most recent workshop.

Why are genuine words of affirmation so rare in organizations? So rare in the human experience for that matter? Let’s change that.