While it’s great to shower employees with cash bonuses, gifts, and other tangible rewards, there are many ways to let people know we appreciate their efforts. Employees often long to be recognized and praised. To illustrate this point, motivator and speaker, Roger Crawford, describes a scene of a child on a diving board calling out “Watch me!” to his mother to get her attention as he dives in. Crawford says that most employees are just like this and have an invisible sign on them that reads “Watch me!”
It’s unfortunate that more managers don’t realize how effective praise can be to motivate employees. Praise doesn’t cost anything other than knowing how to deliver it well. Just what does it take? Here are some critical steps to follow to make the praise most meaningful to employees (Titsworth, 1998):
- Relate the praise to a specific accomplishment. Avoid making vague, general statements that could apply to anyone.
- Speak sincerely and naturally, being spontaneous rather than routine.
- Let the employee know how valuable their contribution is, praising an achievement and not simple participation.
- Attribute the employee’s success to their effort, not to chance.
- Suggest that employee can maintain the positive outcome through continued effort.
It’s also best to make the praise relevant to the individual, not based on a comparison to others. In addition, research shows that praise is most effective when it encourages effort for personal gratification rather than external rewards (Brophy, 1981). Finally, praise needs to be conveyed on a timely basis.
As long as praise is sincere and aligned with the above guidelines, it’s almost impossible to give too much praise. Recognition can be made publicly or privately, although I’ve learned that not everyone appreciates public praise. It’s critical to know the employee’s preference or the intended morale-booster could have the opposite effect. I learned this the hard way years ago when at a lunchtime employee assembly I read aloud the names of employees who had donated to our United Way campaign (not the amount, just their names). One employee who was absent but heard that her name was read stormed into the Human Resources Department and chewed out my poor administrative assistant. I had some damage control to do that day on more than one front.
Praise can also be delivered verbally or in writing. Verbal praise has the benefit of possibly appearing to be spontaneous, which can be seen as a sign of sincerity. It’s also quick and timely. There is no lasting record, however, a distinct advantage of written praise which can take a variety of forms, such as a letter for the employee’s file, a memo to the employee’s supervisor, or an article in the company newspaper. Some companies use electronic headlines or bulletin boards to recognize accomplishments. Another approach that is appreciated because it is distinctive today is the hand-written note. With the proliferation of electronic communication, most people don’t expect a physical letter, much less one that is hand-written. It’s essential with any written communication that the details be presented accurately. Here again, if the dissemination is to be public, the manager should be sure that the employee is comfortable with the attention that may ensue.
For all its potential, praise handled poorly can backfire. In many situations, employees will overlook managers’ failed attempts if the managers’ efforts seem sincere. This is not necessarily the case with praise, however. An employee can be demoralized by praise that is not timely or seems insincere. Recognition that is non-specific or is inaccurate damages the manager’s credibility, leaving the employee feeling unappreciated.
Managers are wise to reflect on their own experiences of being praised. (Hopefully they have some to recall!) Learning from those experiences, they should plan their first few attempts at using praise, taking care to get the details straight and the timing right. Most of all, managers need to be genuine when giving accolades, as sincerity is the most important element.
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