Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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!


Bob Acton said...


Great post on using positive comments with employees. Lots of people have used the notion of "accountability" to denote when we should be hard on an issue but accountability has another side - holding people accountable when they do a good job. Accountability goes both ways.

Not only is it the right thing to do based on values of enhancing confidence and building engagement, but it actually works to shift behavior. If a leader wants to shift somebody's behavior, then reinforcing them for that very behavior is powerful tool.

Dan McCarthy said...

Bob -
Thanks, great points on accountability and behavior reinforcement!

Meg Libby said...

Interesting post! I'm looking forward to trying this 'praise exercise' with my own team!

I do take a bit of an issue with Myth #1: there is such a thing as too much praise if it's dispenced to an employee that doesn't deserve it, or (perhaps even worse), to an employee in danger of getting a 'big head'. Not everybody is going to excel at everything they do in the workplace: it is important (as you say in subsequent myths) to give specific praise on elements of a task at hand, as opposed to blanketing praise on everyone because there's no such thing as too much.

I'd add a 6th Myth as well: Praise should always be public. I think praise dispensed in a one-on-one manner can be just as effective if delivered in a timely and structured manner. A pat on the back always feels nice (and sometimes it reduce the chance of unhealthy team competition).

Dan McCarthy said...

Meg -
Thanks, I'm so glad to hear you're going to give it a try with your team!
I understand your point about myth #1 - managers often worry about the "big head" and "too much" side effects of praise. Yes, it's a risk, but it can be minimized if your priase is specific and sincere.
Good point on myth #6 - agree - I think a lot of public praise efforts can sound cheesy, and you're right, can often backfire.

Job in hospital said...

Great post, thanks for sharing!!!

Alex Raymond said...

Hi Dan,

Great post and analysis.

One of the challenges in the modern workplace is that tools (like email, Intranet, chat tools, Talent Management Systems, etc) are removing some of the important "face time" elements from the task of day-to-day management.

The important thing for managers to do it cut through the technology layer and remember that they are there to manage - which includes giving honest, fair and frequent feedback (and indeed, praise).

We need more of this type of training for managers around the world!

Unknown said...

Great contribution Dan.
It made me think of a quote from the Good Book.
The Message puts it like this: "I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse".
You gave good advice to start expressing these good things.
Thank you

Dan McCarthy said...

Alex -
Thanks! Great point, managing/leading always has been and always will be all about f2f conversations.

Raymond -
Thanks. Wise advice from that Good Book. (-:

Grace Montage said...

The points mentioned in the article are very useful and worth trying when you would handle the team. I would also like to add that when I read pointer 2 in the article, the things that came into my mind is that when you're saying "Good job" it gives an impression that it’s like a verbal template that you can say to your employees and there's a great possibility that people may find it insincere, but when you give praise and give details on why they did a good job signifies that you took time to check their output or the good things they've done would give a great feeling in their part.

Dan McCarthy said...

Grace -
Thanks! Right,the details help with the sincerity. As Bob mentioned, it helps reinforce the desired behavior too.