The Science of Praise: A Manager's Guide To Giving Effective Employee Praise

Guest Contributorby Dominique Jones | Posted | Communication

The Science of Praise: A Manager\'s Guide To Giving Effective Employee Praise

Praise can be a funny thing. When we’re kids – as a study published in Psychology Today shows – we can respond negatively to praise. The article provides examples of a 5-year-old who “burst into tears” when her grandmother looked at her school workbook and proclaimed, “It’s brilliant!”, and a 15-year-old boy who “blushed with fury” when his teacher said his English homework was “intelligent and sensitive.”

As author, Dr. Terri Apter, discovered while conducting this research study, praise is a highly personal interaction. From a child’s point of view, the praise received for achievements may fall short of expectations or seem highly exaggerated; it may cause confusion or be construed as veiled disappointment, or may cause embarrassment for being acknowledged at all.

Interestingly, as we get older, we crave praise more than any other reward. But we’re still very fussy about how and when it is given. Praise causes the brain to release some of its own natural opiates. Once we’ve had a taste, we seek these mood-changing chemicals in many of our everyday encounters. In the workplace, praise from a manager for doing a good job is one of the most motivating incentives. As best-selling author and motivational speaker Bob Nelson says, “Praise is priceless, yet it costs nothing.”

But just because the best things in life are free, doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging to do right. It’s far simpler to hand out a bonus than it is to create a business culture in which sincere “thank yous” are a regular occurrence.

Let’s look at the key aspects of giving effective employee praise.

In Order for Praise to Be Effective it Must Be:

1) Timely


This means it should be:

  • Given while the behavior is still fresh
  • Given when you have time to make the praise complete

Praise should immediately follow a laudable behavior. If you wait two weeks to commend an employee on a job well-done, there’s a good chance it will come out sounding generic. Like you forgot about it and are just saying it for merit’s sake.

You want to mention specific behaviors and actions you were proud of that led to their achievements.

2) Sincere

SincereYOU… did a fantastic job!

There are many ways to give praise, but for it to be effective, it has to be sincere. I read a delightful piece about the president of a company who praised his formidable employees by mailing handwritten notes to their homes.

In our high-tech, information age, it’s easy to shoot off an email from the office or from your Smartphone while in line at the grocery store. It takes time to actually sit down and write a letter. So that action speaks loudly.

Of course, employers should never underestimate the degree to which workers value genuine and kind words delivered face-to-face. Two chief ways humans determine sincerity are through eye-contact and body language. “Good job” is as good as meaningless if not connected to a specific outcome or behavior.

By giving precise praise (praise that mentions specific behaviors) in a setting where you give the employee an opportunity to gauge your words, you help found a relationship of trust.

3) Given in the Right Tone

Given in the right tone

The words you use have less impact than the tone you say them in. To give your words full impact, they must be delivered in the right tone. The same words can mean different things depending on the context. Just ask anyone who has ever tried to tell a woman she looks “healthy”.

Tone is about how you say or write something, or what you appear to mean by your body language. When giving praise you want to make sure you are giving the praise in a tone that is informed, professional and sincere. If you are face-to-face with the person, factors including your facial expressions, the volume of your voice, the pace of your phrases, and the pitch of your voice contribute to your tone. In writing, (the easiest place to get misunderstood), your choice of vocabulary and the length of your sentences and paragraphs, set the tone for your message.

4) Specific

Specific(image source)

Giving praise is more than just giving a compliment. Compliments are great for employee morale, but if you really want to encourage and reinforce a behavior, praise needs to be specific.

Use specific and descriptive words to praise your employees. Zone in on the specific achievements your employee made (boosted sales by x percent, improved a method for doing y more efficiently). Focus on individual strengths and precisely why you found the work to be of high quality. If you emphasize the unexpected value your employee added by performing the way they did, they will be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

5) Not Overdone

Not overdone

You know when you repeat a word so many times it loses its meaning?. In cognitive neuroscience the phenomenon is referred to as semantic satiation. Repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.

In the same vein, people pick up on hollow praise, and if you do it too often your words will lose their meaning. While the “Well Dones” and “Good Jobs” are useful for creating a positive work environment and boosting employee morale, you still want to set standards of excellence. Because effective praise needs to be timely, sincere, given in the right tone and specific, you should only give it when you truly believe the employee has gone out of their way to perform exceptionally.

6) Not Combined With Criticism

Not combined with criticism

If there is one simple rule to remember when giving praise, it’s to avoid using the word, “but” immediately after you’ve complimented the person. Many of us are familiar with the ‘sandwich’ model for providing feedback, but it doesn’t work if you truly just want to recognize someone. If you are trying to sugar-coat criticism by masking it with praise, you will fail miserably in both departments. There is a time for corrective feedback. There is a time for praise. Choose your time wisely so people trust that when you say something, you mean it.

Engaged Employees Inspire Innovation

Sincere, well-timed praise can yield amazing results from your employees, and turn a disengaged employee into an engaged one. Engaged employees are more productive, profitable, safer, create stronger customer relationships, and stay longer with their company than less engaged employees. So take the time to do it right.

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