I’ve spent most of my professional life in organizations that are staffed with and run by talented people who do great work. Similarly, as a classroom teacher, I can’t help but be impressed by what students achieve. In both types of settings, I’ve learned a lot about how to give praise so that it reinforces the behavior that yielded excellent work and encourages the recipient to get even better. Here are a few of my basic principles:
1. Be truly specific. General compliments like “Great job!” or “Excellent presentation!” surely have their place, especially as you hurry to your next meeting. But precise feedback does much more, both for the ego of the recipient and for the quality of her future work. And guess what? “You were so inspiring” or “I loved your final pitch” isn’t specific enough. Tell Carmen that her well-organized tables in part 2 helped you realize that the team’s new project is actually an extension of the previous one (contrary to how others have framed the new venture) and that key components can be imported to save time. She might be able to build on the point at the next team meeting. At the very least, you’ve helped her identify a takeaway message that she delivered successfully.
2. Don’t confuse politeness with praise. In many settings, the social norm is to pepper people with pleasantries in the course of routine interactions (“Thanks so much for your help” or “You’ll send it tomorrow? Wonderful!”). Such verbal gestures often play an important role in maintaining the cooperative tone of a workplace. But if that quotidian tone sounds a lot like the one you use to praise someone’s work, the line between daily politeness and substantive appreciation starts to blur. People begin to be inattentive to feedback because it sounds routine, and in some cases they may simply not believe the compliments they get. Clearly, this all depends a lot on the relationships of the people involved. But, in general, using a discerning or analytical tone when you give praise (e.g., “Your timeliness always helps me do my job better. Thanks.”) makes it more meaningful.
3. Praise with action, not just words. After you’ve told someone precisely what she did well and demonstrated your keen understanding of its value, have her build on it with a follow-up task. That might be something as obvious as assigning her to lead the next new project, but it also might mean commissioning her to train or mentor new employees (both have the added benefit of making the praise public). And, of course, things like merit bonuses work, when that option’s available.
4. Don’t pad constructive criticism with empty praise. Of course, before critiquing someone’s work, it makes sense to identify specifically what she did well. But using token praise as a pretty package for a critique ends up undercutting the value of the authentic praise you give in other contexts. Following the first three principles in this list can foster a much more positive environment for critiques, one in which sugar-coating becomes unnecessary and telling it straight is unlikely to be interpreted as an insult.
How do you go about creating an environment in which praise really means something?
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Sounds so rudimentary but sometimes, everyone needs a little reminder. Be human, it goes a long way. :)