The Art of Authentic Praise
Who doesn’t love to have their work recognized? Whether exalted publicly or privately, people love when their work is praised. Accolades make individuals feel relevant in their work environment. However, praise in the workplace is often misused or underemphasized. Some managers become incredibly conservative with praise, leaving teams feeling unsure of their progress. Other managers toss praise to soften critiques they wish to give, which in turn cheapens the value of the compliments they offer. This mishandling of praise leads to managers and leaders seeming disingenuous and can destroy the motivation of a team. In order for praise to be accepted as authentic and effectively utilized for motivation, leaders must use praise by exalting exemplary work, not as a means to cushion criticism.
On a biological level, praise stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which contributes not only to the reward and pleasure centers, but also to the creative problem-solving centers of the brain (“The Power of Praise and Recognition”). However, dopamine is short-lived. Therefore, the creative processing that occurs after receiving praise often falls flat if not revitalized by another round of praise. In 2004, Gallup Organization studied the utilization of praise in the workplace. Organizations that regularly praised employees experienced a lower turnover rate, higher productivity level, and stronger system in place for goal-setting, communication and accountability (“The Power of Praise and Recognition”). In other words, companies that took advantage of the biological basis of praise-based motivation achieved greater success than those who did not. Additionally, studies have found that praise is more effective when it offers room for improvement. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s study of the effects of praise on kids gave insightful information on this idea. She found that praising kids for their intellect or talent – innate traits – made them less persistent, confident and resilient. As a result, any challenge confronted was viewed as a moment that could discredit their talent or intellect. Praising progress, hard work, effort or focus proved to be much more effective because it allowed room for development. Instead of protecting the status of being the “best,” there was a motivation to become better. Companies should use this knowledge to create a higher level of productivity in their organization (Peterson).
Many managers prove to be conservative with praise, only giving it when it is abundantly clear that an individual should be praised. Instead, a manager would find an increase in motivation if praise were given liberally. This idea stems from the concept of praised behavior being repeated behavior. Company leaders should take advantage of opportunities for offering praise both privately and publicly at random. In the spirit of authenticity, stay away from meaningless praise. Aim to be specific, not only about what the individual did, but also why the individual’s work is noteworthy. Specificity shows employees that their managers are making an intentional attempt to connect with them (Nagy). Additionally, while it is easy to praise the outgoing and extroverted employees, make sure to extol the quieter individuals as well. While they may not appreciate a public display, your private praise to them will motivate them to continue working as high performers. Be purposeful with discovering how each person on your team responds to both private and public praise; everyone responds differently, and an effective leader can use their knowledge of such a response to bring about motivation.
While praise should be utilized often, leaders should stay away from using it to cushion critique. This technique goes by many names – the praise sandwich, the Oreo technique – but the concept remains the same. Praise is offered before and after negative feedback as a means to soften the blow of the critique. This approach comes across as disingenuous and judgmental, especially to experienced employees, and will result in decreased motivation. Jurgen Appelo, a speaker and author on the topic of workplace management, provides an alternative approach. He suggests sharing observations on a situation, explaining why it matters, and then providing feedback, which moves employee behavior in a positive direction. While not always easy, this builds both rapport and motivation within the team if a leader is honest with their critique (Appelo).
In light of biological and psychological studies, leaders should take advantage of the use of effective praise, highlighting praiseworthy work, and not using it to mask negative comments. The art of authentic praise may not be an easy task, but it ultimately begins and ends with genuine feedback. As a new leader in an organization, allow teams to become better by taking praise into consideration. By offering sincere praise, leaders give a team room to grow, develop, and become more innovative employees in a company.
Appelo, Jurgen. “Ditch The Praise Sandwich, Make Feedback Wraps.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Aug. 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jurgenappelo/2015/08/17/ditch-the-praise-sandwich-make-feedback-wraps/#18f96745fa4a.
Nagy, Irina. “The Importance of Praise in the Workplace.” INVESTIGO, Investigo, 8 Nov. 2016, http://www.investigo.co.uk/news/the-importance-of-praise-in-the-workplace/26235/.
Peterson, Joel L. A. “The Surprising Science of Praise.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-l-a-peterson/the-surprising-science-of_b_8012824.html.
“The Power of Praise and Recognition.” Training Journal, 18 Feb. 2014, http://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/feature/power-praise-and-recognition.