Positive reinforcement is a lasting gift for givers and receivers alike

No matter what career stage we are in, we all benefit from a little encouragement. I was reminded of this in a powerful way by a student who had, in her own words, "dug herself a huge hole."

No matter what career stage we are in, we all benefit from a little encouragement. I was reminded of this in a powerful way by a student who had, in her own words, “dug herself a huge hole.” The lesson she taught me extends far beyond the classroom and applies to both the giver and recipient of positive reinforcement.

She had started the semester in good shape, but within a few weeks her classroom appearances became sporadic. She failed to turn in her initial assignment and then missed a second deadline. She became non-communicative, ignored several e-mails I sent her, and finally stopped coming to class altogether.

I had pretty much given up on her, but then out of the blue I received an e-mail in which she apologized for her negligence and disrespectful behavior. She also pledged to turn over a new leaf.

We agreed to meet and discuss how she could salvage the semester. While I could not excuse her late papers, I helped her map out a path to at least passing the course. She would need to complete all of her assignments, even the missing ones, turn in the remainder on time, participate actively in class, and fulfill her obligations to her team in completing the group semester project.

As promised, she presented me one day with a handful of her missing papers. As I began grading them, I discovered something quite surprising; she was an excellent writer, perhaps the best in the class. It was fresh, funny, disarming yet insightful. She had a command of the language and showed real engagement with the cases she was analyzing.

In my feedback, I complimented her on her writing, noting that she demonstrated a real gift. If she could simultaneously develop both her craft and her discipline in meeting deadlines she had real potential as a communicator.

A few days later, I received a sincere, direct, and grateful response. She thanked me for being willing to read her papers, for allowing her to turn them in late, and for being understanding. She said it had been quite a while since she had “felt capable” or received any positive reinforcement, but my comments had truly helped her.

I have no idea what the long-term impact of this exchange will be. She still has a long way to go in demonstrating to herself and others that she can use her considerable skills as a writer in a dependable way. But I relearned a valuable lesson about not giving up on people and about how powerful our affirming comments can be to those who are at the early stages of their careers.

These comments must be earned to be sure; but we should always be on the lookout for opportunities to bestow them when we have a chance.

Tom Martin is an executive-in-residence, Department of Communication, the College of Charleston. He serves as a senior counselor for PulsePoint Group. He can be reached at martintr@cofc.edu.

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