In praise of praise

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Praise is powerful stuff. It can help you increase the productivity and morale of your team.

But too many managers don’t praise enough or praise indiscriminately. Here’s a look at what we know about praise and how to do it well.

What we know about praise

There are a lot of myths and misinformation floating around about praise. Many of them constitute the “old wives’ tales of management.” But there are some things we know.

Great bosses tell us that praise is one of their power tools. In my work with top performing supervisors I found that great supervisors praise more and more creatively than their less successful peers.

Workers tell us that praise is important. According to Gallup’s research: “Employees who report that they’re not adequately recognized at work are three times more likely to say that they’ll quit in the next year.” Alas, they also tell us that only about a third of them have received any praise from their supervisor in the last seven days.

Psychologists tell us that praise is a powerful, but specific, tool. Use praise to get people to try something new or to continue something that they’re learning or that’s difficult.

Biologists tell us that praise causes the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that creates feelings of pride and pleasure.

Social scientists tell us very few people get much praise at work even though there are solid business benefits. Gallup studied over five million workers and concluded that those benefits include lower turnover and higher productivity.

But not just any praise will do. There’s a bit of technique to master.

What we know about how to give good praise

Just understanding why praise is important and powerful is not enough. You only get the benefits when you do the job right. Here are some guidelines.

Praise should be tied to clear expectations and performance standards. Without these praise has no context or meaning.

Praise should only be given for something praiseworthy. Don’t praise just to praise. Praise behavior, including effort. Praise excellent performance or performance improvement.

Praise should be appropriate. Most of the time a simple “good job” is all that’s needed. More significant things might merit an email, a handwritten note, or something more formal or public.

Praise should be specific. Tell your team member what he or she did that merits the praise. Tell them why it matters.

Praise should be prompt. The closer in time you are to the behavior or performance you’re praising, the more effective your praise will be.

Praise should be given inconsistently. Praise does seem to lose power if every good behavior gets a mention.

Praise should match your team member’s preferences. Praise people in ways that matter to them. Be especially sensitive to your introverts who may prefer private praise to public recognition.

Nothing here is new. So why do so many workers go so long without praise? Why is there such an imbalance between positive and negative comments by supervisors?

Why don’t managers praise more?

I’ve been training new supervisors and coaching leaders at all levels for almost thirty years. I’ve heard lots of comments and questions about praise. The reasons managers say they don’t praise seem to fall into three groups.

Some managers think that you shouldn’t praise unless to also mix in “constructive criticism.” Nope.

Think about how we encourage babies who are just learning to walk. We praise and encourage without a hint of “constructive criticism.” There are times when you want to mix the two, but when the behavior or performance call for praise alone, praise away.

Some managers think that if you praise someone a lot, he or she will quit working hard. Whenever I hear this one, I ask the questioner if he or she would work less after praise. In thirty years, no one has ever said they would.

If this comes up in a classroom situation, I ask everyone in the class if praise will make them slack off. Again, in almost thirty years no one has ever said they would quit working hard if they got praised.

Some managers worry about praising “too much.” That’s a legitimate concern. You praise too much any time you praise something that’s not praiseworthy. You praise too much when you lavish praise on something that isn’t significant.

Think about it. If two thirds of American workers aren’t being praised at all, you’ve got a long way to go before you get to “too much.”

Praise is a power tool.

Great supervisors tell us that praise is a power tool. They use praise to help their team members grow and develop. They use praise to improve morale and productivity. They praise well and their praise helps make their teams great.

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