How does it feel when someone praises your accomplishments? Do you suddenly feel inspired, sharp and ready to take on new challenges? Science shows that there are many psychological effects of praise. Used correctly, praise can boost self-esteem, increase performance and supercharge productivity. Used incorrectly or not at all, it can tear down and render the most high-powered team impotent.
So, why do so many managers have a hard time mastering one of the most essential responsibilities of leadership?
Many managers are fixers – hardwired to solve problems. Once solved, they are on to the next problem, often speeding past the chance to praise those who labored toward victory. Unsurprisingly, if you look at nearly any top-10 list of reasons your top talent leaves, it includes variations of not feeling valued, poor communication, lack of recognition or lack of trust or autonomy.
The Chemistry of Praise
Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”
Everyone, including spouses, extended family, colleagues, customers, and even your boss, loves to get sincere recognition and praise for a job well done. When we hear something we like, dopamine is released in our brains — the chemical associated with feelings of joy, pride, satisfaction and well-being. When you praise someone sincerely, it leads to a physiological desire to recreate that feeling. In the simplest terms, that is why praising someone cements good behavior and work habits. A side benefit is that, when you learn to enjoy praising others, you experience that same chemical reward. By doing something good for someone else, you also feel good. Sincere praise also helps you develop good work relationships with colleagues. Consistent with the law of reciprocity, others are often willing to return that feeling of goodwill by lending a hand or sharing useful information.
Now that we understand the problem and the benefit, what are some practical steps to enhance the skill of praising others?
Give praise often.
The best way to avoid feeling uncomfortable praising someone is to do it until it feels natural. The aim is to build a healthy habit of praise. Regardless of personality type, you can learn to observe those around you and actively look for praise-worthy things.
Give praise immediately.
It is important to praise others as they earn it. Resist the urge to wait until the “time is right.” The moment of achievement is always the right time, because it helps the recipient quickly assess the things that are important to you. Immediate praise also feels most authentic.
Give praise publicly.
If you are not comfortable receiving praise publicly, your natural inclination may be to reserve praise for private settings or one-on-one. But, public praise is most often most impactful.
If you are in a meeting, praise the person while others are present. If you are interacting through email, copy relevant peers and superiors when you send a praise email.
Anyone who has a seen a show like American Idol understands the weight of a compliment from Simon Cowell versus that of Paula Abdul.
Heaping praise on the mundane or manufacturing praise can be counterproductive. It means more to the recipient when they recognize it as praiseworthy. Learn to watch for key moments. Make a note. Then, look for an opportunity to express it.
Not all compliments are created equal. Saying “Nice job!” or “Well done!” is better than no praise at all. But, being specific adds impact. For instance, “Wow. Your writing in that report was great. You have such a way with words. I could learn so much from you.”
Check your but.
Have you ever been the recipient of a message along the lines of, “Thank you for responding so quickly, but…”
If you have ever studied business writing, you likely learned the sandwich method for delivering bad news — Good or Neutral News / Bad News / Good or Neutral News. Many managers misapply this method to delivering praise and critique to others.
Praise should not be the buffer to ease a request for more work or to soften a critique. Let your praise stand alone. When praise is followed by criticism, it nullifies the previously mentioned dopamine pleasure response and counteracts your intended outcome.
Praise through action.
Did a subordinate demonstrate the ability to powerfully communicate? Trust them to represent you at an upcoming meeting. Did they show above-and-beyond attention to detail? Give them the opportunity to lead a key project. Words plus action magnify the impact.
Spread your praise.
Your highest-performing team members are likely oft-praised. (Perhaps that is why they are your highest performing.) Learn to look for praiseworthy moments among those who receive less recognition. That praise may be the difference between them flourishing or floundering.
Praise those who you don’t naturally get along with.
A tenuous relationship can wreak havoc when a project overlaps with someone you don’t naturally get along with. Praise can go a long way. Your responsibility is to train yourself to look for the good in others despite your underlying bias.
Personalize your process.
Find what works for you. I keep a stack of thank you notes and envelopes on my desk where I see them every day. They serve as a reminder to watch for praiseworthy moments.
If someone is outside of my normal circle and I know I won’t see them soon, I write a handwritten note and drop it in the mail for immediacy. Sometimes I see the cards and decide instead to send an email and copy the person’s supervisor(s). Sometimes I see the cards during my morning meetings and remember that I observed a member of my team who was deserving of praise and I need to verbalize that thought.
Find something that suits your style and personality.
Take a moment to consider how these tips may apply to other relationships like friends and family.