Yes, I know, “invisible support” sounds like the tag line for an old commercial for women’s undergarments. That’s because it is.
But that is probably not what the psychologists had in mind when they started studying invisible support.
By now support is one of the greatest of contemporary virtues. We've even dusted off an old word to claim this virtue: we are all supportive. Of our friends, our family, our colleagues, our staff.
For the record, when psychologists speak of support, whether emotional or psychological, they are referring to encouragement and advice.
Even though everyone claims to this virtue, not all expressions of support are created equal.
It’s one thing to say that you are supportive; quite another to express your support in a way that will inspire and motivate the other person.
If you say you’re supportive and your advice undermines your staff or your spouse, then you are not really being supportive.
Some recent research has been reported here and here. Older research can be found here.
All of the research seems to arrive at the same surprising conclusion. The more visible and open the support, the less it will help.
If the support is invisible, that is, if you do not know you are receiving encouragement and/or advice, then you will make better uses of it. Supported invisibly, you will gain confidence and work more effectively.
Here again, within a specific context, we find confirmation of the old adage: the less said, the better.
Open and honest expressions of encouragement are most likely going to be counterproductive.
As you may know, I have written about the difficulties of giving advice, here and here, and thus, I am more than interested in this work.
Surely, the researchers are correct to say that it is very difficult to give support without seeming to give support. What, after all, is invisible support?
We can guess that visible support involves barking out orders, forcing people to do your bidding, and telling them what to do.
By definition, barking is not encouragement, but it can certainly accompany advice. A manager who implies that he resents having to give advice and encouragement-- because you shouldn't need it in the first place-- is diminishing and demeaning his employee, even as he seems to be giving support.
I think that we can understand this point. I find it more intriguing that any gesture of clear and open encouragement, even the kind that is larded over with delicate sentiments, will also produce a similar effect. It will demoralize more than motivate.
But how do you offer invisible support? One way that seems obvious to me, and hopefully, not only to me, is simply to delegate authority.
Great executives are great at delegating. If they have to explain how to do the job, they are also saying that they do not have confidence in anyone else's ability to get it right.
The less an executive says, the more his employee will feel that he has received a vote of confidence. The more he feels that the executive has confidence in him, the more he will feel motivated to fulfill those expectations. The more he feels that the boss is counting on him, the better he will work.
If, on the other hand, he feels that his boss expects him to fail, he will also be trying to fulfill those expectations.
If a boss allows his associate to do the job as he sees fit, the associate will assume more authority, gain more trust in his own judgment, and become more effective.
The less an executive seems to pay attention to how an employee is doing his job, the more the employee will feel empowered.
But, if you are the boss you should not simply ignore your employees. Ignoring them suggests that their job is unimportant. It’s better to offer a simple pat on the back or a statement to the effect that the job was well done.
If, however, you praise someone with too much enthusiasm, that will imply that you did not expect him to complete it effectively. This will tend to demoralize him for the next task.
Invisible support might involve: including a person in a meeting; asking an opinion on an important issue; calling him by his name; quoting something he said a few weeks ago;or deferring to the person when a question comes up.