When you're the one in charge, there's something to be said for properly assigning blame and holding people accountable. In fact, the best leaders are willing to point a finger even at themselves if it's appropriate.

But according to Dr. Naomi Ellemers, how you make others feel when you place blame is a big predictor of whether your attempt to initiate change will be effective. Ellemers is a social psychologist at Utrecht University and author of Morality and the Regulation of Social Behavior: Groups As Moral Anchors.

Shame and guilt don't motivate.

In an article for Psychology Today, Ellemers notes that people have seen the emotions of guilt and shame as a good means of keeping others in line--that is, making someone feel bad about what they've done can encourage them to conform to current social expectations or norms.

But she also notes that this common belief might be misinformed, as research from Colin Leach of Columbia University demonstrated that shame and guilt tend to put people on the defensive. When people don't have a way to make things right, they simply trivialize, hide or deny what they've done. They even can discredit the person delivering the message of wrongdoing.

So if guilt and shaming isn't an effective tactic for you to pull out as a leader, then what is?

Ellemers asserts that, if you really want to mobilize someone or a group to do something differently, you can't just highlight how they've screwed up. You have to show them that there's an opportunity to do better and be specific about the steps they can take to shift away from the unwanted behavior or mistake.

In other words, your job is to give the person hope--hope not only that they can take action, but that the effort of taking that action will have a result that is positive. You must paint a picture of them accomplishing, rising to a higher moral ground and improving themselves, others and the world for it.

Yet, if this is so important, then why don't leaders come to this approach more naturally?

In my view, leaders fail to give hope--or even to claim it for themselves--because, despite understanding the effects of positivity on mental health, morale and performance, a huge component of their job is to assume by default that there are risks to mitigate. And as competition gets heated, they are taught to expect the worst and to cut problems out like cancers.

But the funny thing about the brain is, the more you look for a certain type of thing, the easier those things become to see. This means that focusing on the positive makes it easier to find reasons for gratitude and reparation. But it also means that, if a leader is constantly looking for offenders and problems, it can be harder for them to believe that people can do good.

And so leaders can become past-oriented. Rather than look forward to the many good possibilities that exist, they look only backward to the one negative path someone else has previously taken. Confirmation bias talks in the leader's ear and tells them, "See? This is just more evidence that people are lazy and untrustworthy, and that I have to micromanage for real results."

How to find and deliver hope.

To fight this tendency, you must first start to look for reasons to hope in your own life. Celebrate small wins, even if it's taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Step back and note your patterns of thought, and then make a conscious effort to challenge them. Surround yourself with tenacious people and focus time on inspiring news and stories.

Then make it external. Take note if an employee is five minutes late to a meeting instead of their usual 10, for example--it's still an improvement. Connect offenders with people who have made the same mistakes and moved past them successfully, so that the new offenders have an example of growth. Focus on the positive skills they have that they can use to start and maintain a new behavior, and lay out a clear game plan with specific tools they can turn to for accountability.

But here's the key: No matter what options, logistics and accountability strategies you might provide, by far the biggest package of hope you can deliver is you.

When you serve as a model for seeking the positive and starting over, workers see it. And when you speak with sincerity about their ability to reach a different place, they rise. For real hope, for real change, never underestimate the power of simply being believed in. It's being confident in that belief that ultimately helps others see that they can move forward to where they need to be.

Published on: Nov 15, 2019
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