5 Myths about Giving Praise

When I first started out in the corporate training business, I was responsible for training new managers and supervisors. We had a mandatory three week program that covered all the usual HR and operational topics, including performance management. In performance management, we would spend most of the time teaching managers how to deal with performance issues, and about two hours teaching them how to deal with good performance.

It wasn’t that we didn’t think positive reinforcement – or praise was important – it’s just that it seemed like such a no-brainer, and other than offering the usual “be specific, timely, and sincere”, we ran out of things to teach very quickly. It was actually one of their favorite training days, because we always ended up letting them out early.

And we wondered why employee satisfaction was so low and turnover so high. Looking back, it seems pretty “dumb and dumber” doesn’t it?

Fast forward to today, and I’m afraid things haven’t changed too much. Research shows that ‘appreciation for a job well done’ consistently ranks highly as a motivator in employee surveys. Yet research also shows that most people don’t feel they get enough praise.

Why is praise such an undervalued and underused management skill? Maybe it’s because we still believe the following myths regarding giving praise:

1. “You can overdo it.”
Well, maybe in theory, I suppose that’s possible. In fact, some would say we’ve raised a generation of kids that have received too much praise. If that’s true, it sure hasn’t carried over to the workplace. I can prove it: try conducting this experiment with any group of employees. Ask them “how many of you receive too much praise from your manager”? I’ve been doing this poll for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen a single hand go up. As a manager, yes, it’s a risk that your employees might get sick of all that praise you’re giving them, but I think it’s a risk worth taking.

2. “It’s easy!”
Sure, it’s easy to say “good job”. The hard part is describing the specific behaviors or characteristics that went into getting the good results. It’s the same in our personal relationships. How many of us mechanically tell our spouses or kids that we love them, but never take the time to tell them why we love them?

In my experience, managers (and people in general) just aren’t very good at coming up with ways to describe competencies (knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes) in a way that’s meaningful. I’d recommend purchasing a dictionary of competencies – like Lominger’s FYI – to use as a resource guide until it begins to feel more natural.

3. “It’s all about technique.”
Yes, learning how to give praise is important – but it’s so much more than a skill building exercise. More importantly, the willingness and ability to give praise is a value, or a mindset.

People that are overly judgmental, suspicious by nature, insecure, and aloof will often treat praise like a scarce resource, only to be rationed out in small quantities in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

People that are good at giving praise tend to see people, and the world, with a different set of eyes. They look for the positive, and can see good in people and situations that the rest of us can’t see.

The good news is, minds can be changed and attitudes can be learned. But it’s much harder than practicing skill technique!

4. “Not everyone needs or wants praise.” Or, “They know it – so they don’t need to hear it from me”.
The need to feel valued and appreciated is a basic human need. It transcends culture, race, gender, and age. Sure, some people say they don’t need or want praise – and they may even believe it. They may be uncomfortable receiving praise, and respond in an awkward way that makes you feel uncomfortable. However – I guarantee you – these same people are the ones taking that report card, performance appraisal, or email home and showing it to their family or keeping it as a memento.

Unless you are told outright to stop it – keep doing it. After all, it’s about making the receiver feel good, not you.

5. “It takes too much time”.
“No time to do it” = low in priority. Period, no excuses. With the right mindset (looking for the positive, sincerity), and right skills (specific and timely), giving praise will motivate your employees, improve your relationships, and at the end of the day, make you a better person. Not a bad ROI for 30 seconds of your time.

Ready to turn over a new leaf but not sure where to start? Here’s what you can do today to get started:

Pick one person. It could be a spouse, your child, friend, co-worker, or employee – and think of one thing they’ve recently done that you really appreciated. Or, it could be one characteristic that you really admire about them. Write down the specific behaviors or traits that made you feel that way, and why. If you’re struggling, ask someone for help.

Then, tell the person. Use email, phone, in person, Skype, whatever…., it doesn’t matter. Just beware – experiencing people’s reactions to sincere, specific praise can cause prolonged euphoria and be highly addictive. Don’t overdo it! Start with a once a week dosage, then gradually increase frequency until your body chemistry stabilizes.

Good luck!