Wednesday, November 14, 2012

10 Questions and Answers for Managers about Praise

Praise is one of the most misunderstood, powerful, and underutilized management skills. The following is a reenactment of an actual coaching conversation I had with a manager.
1. What is “praise”? Just what exactly are we talking about here?
Giving praise means telling someone about something positive that they did. Other common terms for praise include positive recognition, positive feedback, a complement, appreciation, a pat on the back, props, kudos, WERK, toot, and yadah.
2. Why is it important for managers to praise their employees?

EVERYONE wants it and it’s one of the easiest things to give. It encourages, inspires, motivates, rewards, shows respect, and retains.
Being appreciated is a basic human need, right up there with a need for food, caffeine, sex, and smartphones.

In survey after survey, employees consistently report that “recognition for a job well done” is one of their most important motivators. And in those same surveys, the majority of respondents always say they don’t get enough of it.
Think about it: all employees want it. Most employees don’t get enough of it. As a manager, you have an unlimited supply of it and it doesn’t cost you a dime. How damn hard can it be to be a good boss without even breaking a sweat??

3. Can you give too much praise? You know, overdo it? I don’t want my employees walking around with swelled heads.
I’ll answer that question with another question:

How many managers have you worked for gave you just waaaay too much praise?
I’ve asked that question to hundreds – perhaps thousands of managers in seminars, and I’ve never seen a single hand go up.

I suppose it could happen – but given all of the potential benefits, it just may be one of those crazy risks worth taking. You might just have to run out and buy some extra-large hats.
4. What are some of the best excuses for why a manager doesn’t give praise?

Ah, there are many, and I’ve heard them all. Not enough time, my manager doesn’t give me praise, my employees work remotely, I have too many direct reports, my employee(s) haven’t done anything to deserve it, and I’m not comfortable giving it.
All of which are lame, lame, and lamer excuses. The manager either doesn’t see the value in it, doesn’t know how to do it effectively so shy’s away from it, or was raised by a pack of hyenas.

5. OK, I get it, and I was raised by my Mom and Dad. How DO you give praise effectively? Is it something that a manager can screw up, or will employees appreciate that I at least tried it out?
Actually, it IS possible to screw it up. In fact, I suspect getting a negative reaction to praise is one of the reasons managers don’t do it often enough. Some people – maybe even most people – are as bad at receiving praise as others are about giving it. They’ll shrug it off, say it was nothing, clam up, or get embarrassed. So, a manager doesn’t always get instant gratification for giving praise. That’s OK – as a manager, it’s not all about YOU. Even if the employee doesn’t react the way you might hope they would, it doesn’t mean it’s not important to them. Chances are, they’ll go home and tell their significant other. Or maybe not tell anyone – but trust me, at the end of the day, it matters.

Let’s go get back to screwing it up. Yes, in order for praise to have its maximum positive effect, it should be:
A. Timely
Timely simply means not waiting too long. You don’t want to have one of those George Costanza “Jerk Store” moments, where you think of something witty to say 3-4 days too late.

B. Sincere
Don’t make stuff up just to check it off your list. Be patient, like a hunter stalking its prey. LOOK for good things – it’ll happen, and when it does, pounce on it!
C. Specific
This is the one where people seem to have the hardest time with. It will take a little effort and practice to get really good at it, but when you do, the sincerity will follow.

There’s two parts to “Specific”: (1) a description of the behavior or action and (2) why the action or behavior was such a good thing.

6. That last thingy sounds a little tricky – can you give me an example?
Be happy too:

“Thanks for asking for clarification and examples on how to be specific. By doing that, it allowed me to make sure not only you know what it means, but chances are, a lot of other readers probably had the same question”.
Much better than "good question", right?
7. OK, I’m sold, but how can I turn over a new leaf without looking like I just got back from charm school or read the latest leadership book?

The good thing about learning how to give praise is that there are SO many opportunities to practice in a safe environment. You can try it with you kids, parents, significant other, waiters and waitresses, cab drivers, flight attendants, nurses, teachers, …… the possibilities are endless! Best of all, the better you get at it, you’ll start enjoying the reaction you get from people as much as they enjoy the praise.

8. Is it OK to praise my boss? Isn’t that “sucking up”?
Yes, it is perfectly OK to praise your boss, as long as your intentions are to sincerely recognize and show appreciation for something positive, not to gain some kind of political edge.

9. What about public vs. private praise?
I’d have to answer this one with a big, fat “it depends”. There are pros and cons to both, so it all depends on the situation and most importantly, the individual’s preference. It’s part of getting to know your employees and what is motivates them. If you don’t know, ask.

10. Can you recommend a book on the topic?
Seriously?! A book? Come on, this isn’t rocket science. But if you’re really all geeked up about learning more about employee recognition, I’d recommend the classic 1501 Ways to Reward Employees, by Bob Nelson, and Love 'em or Lose 'em: Getting Good People to Stay, by Beverly Kaye. But don’t over study it – just get started today.


Karin Hurt said...

It's interesting to see the list of "basic needs" evolving. Great post. Right on.

Lisa Kohn said...

My favorite line - "as a manager it's not all about YOU." So many times we get caught up in believing (and feeling) that everything is all about us, and it can stop us from taking the right leadership actions. When we can stop worrying about other's people's reactions and do the right thing, we can move ahead. Great post!

Dan McCarthy said...

Karin -
Thanks, I think Maslow would have agreed. (-:

Lisa -

Anonymous said...

Another tip: if encouragement and praise is not something you naturally think about, come up with something to help you remember to recognize and reward your employees. But DON'T let them find out you have an encouragement calendar :) Short, funny video on a manager's encouragement fail.

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon -
Thanks, pretty funny.
Now class, what was missing from that example? (-:

Morag Barrett said...


A great post and I loved your final comment "it's not rocket science" - that may be true, but it may as well be as so many people (not just leaders and managers) seem to struggle with this concept.
Making it a habit to seek out the opportunities to celebrate success is something I encourage the participants in my leadership programs to do. Appreciating others contribution makes a huge difference to everyone involved.

Wesam El-Halawani said...

It all has to do with being Human and being respectful to others. A truly genuine leader would touch employees in their hearts and help them see that they actually matter and mean more than what they might think they do. Was lately touched by what Kat Cole did, President of Cinnabon, going undercover and "praising" her well performing employees.

A genuine praise could make miracles.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, and yes, they do seem to struggle with it.
Thanks. Love those Cinnabons. (-:

Tim G said...

Great stuff Dan, thanks.

I'll add an observation of my own - getting better at giving positive feedback is a great training ground for providing corrective feedback.

For those managers who aren't comfortable giving corrective feedback (and subsequently don't), practicing with positive feedback helps build some of the skills needed to give more corrective feedback!

Dan McCarthy said...

Awesome point, thanks!

Scott Wagers said...

Interesting post. Good to have such a listing of reminders why it is important to give praise. Really think the aspect of being sincere and specific is important. False praise only has the effect of diminishing the impact of worthy praise.

I think praise also provides an opportunity to reinforce types of behavior that you want to encourage. For example proactive and collaborative actions. It is easy to praise someone for doing a good job solving a problem, but what you want to encourage is the prevention of problems by your whole team.

Dan McCarthy said...

Scott -
Thanks, good point, it's important to point out the "what", "how",and "why", not just the result.