One of your team members arrives to a meeting and you lean over and say, “Awesome work on the rollout plan, it’s detailed and thoughtful.” What’s likely to happen next is a fascinating set of responses in their brain and behavior. Firstly, their brain’s reward system lights up, just as if you handed them a $10 bill. This boosts self-esteem and feelings of satisfaction. We also know from research that they’ll be more motivated, do better work, and stay at the company longer. All this for “paying” them a compliment?
Praise and recognition can have a powerful impact, but most teams don’t praise each other enough. Research on the ratio of praise to critical feedback suggests the highest performing teams give close to six comments of praise for every critical remark. Think daily praise and weekly constructive feedback. How do you compare?
Not all praise is created equal
While the potential impact of praise is clear, there are different ways to go about it. Here are some recommendations to create the greatest impact:
1. Be specific. “Great job!” isn’t the same as “I appreciate the attention you put on incorporating evidence into your presentation.” More specific praise helps the person understand what about their work you found effective and they’ll be more likely to do more of that in the future.
2. Emphasize the process. Carol Dweck has done seminal research in schools on the difference between “You’re got all the questions right!” and “You really worked hard solving those problems!” When results are emphasized, it implicitly conveys that the outcome is what matters, and people take on easier work so they can show “better results”. When process is emphasized, people take on greater challenges.
3. Be authentic. The quickest way to undermine the impact of praise is to do it in such a way that you’re seen as disingenuous or manipulative. Find your voice and push yourself to regularly share praise and mean it.
4. Be timely. Don’t only provide praise in one-on-ones. If you hear something praise-worthy, get in the habit of calling it out on the spot. It only takes a moment and comes across as more authentic than if you only share praise in one-on-ones.
5. Be surprising. Take advantage of opportunities to provide praise. Good news from a client? Take a moment, walk over to the team member responsible, and tell them how excited you were to see the outcome and you appreciate how much time and attention they put into managing their accounts.
6. Save constructive feedback for another time. If sandwiching constructive criticism in between two pieces of praise hasn’t been put to bed, it should be. When constructive feedback is given along with praise, people forget the praise and fixate on what didn’t work. There’s definitely a role for constructive feedback, but save it for another time.
7. Be sensitive to how employees like to be praised. While many employees appreciate public recognition, it might not be comfortable for everyone. The best way to know what works for an employee? Ask them. “I like to call out one or two team members in the all-hands. I’d like to highlight your work on the product design in our next meeting. Is that alright with you?”
From theory to practice
There are a variety of methods for supporting you in providing consistent authentic praise.
1. Track it—this could be anything from using an app like Tally to putting coins in one pocket at the beginning of the day and shifting them one-at-a-time to another pocket each time you give praise throughout the day. Marshall Goldsmith recommends rating yourself each day from 1-10 on each action you’re working on. Ask yourself, “Did I do my best to provide authentic praise and recognition today?”
2. Run low-risk experiments—try giving praise to someone you haven’t before, or try giving praise for something that you don’t normally give praise for (e.g., challenging your ideas, managing work and life to avoid burnout). For another challenge, try finding and voicing authentic praise in every interaction you have for a certain span of time. This can help flex your praise muscle, making it easier to spot and comment on good work in those around you.
3. Create a recognition culture—what can you build into your company operations that will provide opportunities to recognize employees? This could include starting team meetings by sharing successes, highlighting excellent work in a weekly email, or incorporating new questions into project post-mortems.
As with all leadership practices, practices around praise and recognition must be adapted to fit the situation as well as the organizational culture more broadly. When provided authentically, praise is an important element of an engaged, motivated, and high performing team.