When I look back on some of my biggest successes, I'm incredibly aware that I wouldn't have accomplished even a fraction of what I did if I hadn't had supportive people encouraging me along the way. The right kind words, after all, have a way of slapping your inner critic in the face.

Today's workers need similar encouragement. Even as they pull incredible innovations into existence and secure huge paydays for their businesses, they face a huge range of worrisome circumstances--less financial security, longer hours, and a dog-eat-dog market mentality, for example.

But most well-intended encouragement misses the mark and fails to serve its uplifting purpose. If you really want to make a difference,

1. Make what you say about them, not the work.

Because there is such an emphasis on metrics in the modern office, you can be sucked into phrases like "You sold x units last month, so reaching y shouldn't be a problem for you." These kinds of lines express some faith in the employee, but they still are presumptive and overly focus on the result you want, rather than the person who can give that result to you.

Instead, try something like, "Last month was spectacular--you really showed me you know how to connect with our clients, and that's exactly the kind of talent we need on this team." This shifts the praise away from the numbers and back to the positive traits or behaviors of the worker.

2. Show their influence.

If you didn't get the memo, most workers are motivated by the need for a sense of purpose and belonging, not general perks like higher pay. They need to see how what they are doing affects others and influences change, or they don't feel like what they're doing--or their entire existence--means much.

Rather than just saying thank you (which you still should do), connect the worker with the next step. For example, share warm reviews and stories from customers they've helped. Or tell them what you're able to do because of them, such as "You're always so calm and grounded, and I really appreciate that because then I feel like I can concentrate and get through the next hurdle."

3. Be specific.

Saying something like "Good job!" lets the worker know they performed the way you wanted. But it doesn't acknowledge specific actions the person did right, which means they don't really have a sense of what to replicate for next time. Plus, it's painfully generic. You can say it to anybody, and no one wants to feel like they're just one more grain in the sandbox. That's led educators and psychologists around the world to recommend a specific praise strategy as an effective mode of positive reinforcement.

Let your encouragement focus on something that's unique to the worker or that focuses on a single behavior, and give a precise "why". For example, "What I love about what you did here is...", "Joe, I really like that you're..." or "I thought of you for this because you..." The more irreplaceable and distinctly competent you make the worker feel, the more self-confident and stable they'll be.

4. Take time.

This is a two-part affair. First, you can't give proper encouragement if you don't really know what the employee is going through or will to respond best to. So you have to take time to engage with them one-on-one and form a transparent, trust-filled relationship.

Once you have a solid interpersonal bond, slow down and deliver the encouragement in a way that allows it to linger. Don't just pop your head in the door as you scurry to your meeting and throw out a random nice comment the worker can't even really respond to. Have a seat and have a real conversation. This will make the employee feel like they're not just a passing thought and as though they have more significance.

Published on: May 17, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.