Workplace Wisdom

How Praise Can Help Strengthen Strengths

I recently finished conducting a workshop series on teamwork with an up-and-coming group of middle managers. In the last session, I led the group through an exercise involving something that we don’t do often enough, either in business or in life: identifying people’s strengths.

Here’s what we did:

Each of the seven participants wrote down three or four strengths for each of the others in the group. They then took turns reading their lists aloud. The crucial rule is that the recipients were instructed to sit quietly and listen as the praise was directed toward them, taking notes if they chose. They were not allowed to challenge or in any way undercut the comments. They could ask for clarification if they didn’t understand something, but otherwise, they were not to speak, except to thank the group at the end.

It’s much harder to have several people praise you, explicitly, to your face than you’d expect, so it takes significant courage to volunteer to be the first recipient in this exercise.

The Benefits of a Praise Workout

Why finish a development process by focusing on people’s strengths?

  • Most people who make it into management are exceedingly skillful at noticing weaknesses and inadequacies, but, sadly, in most workplaces, there’s not enough attention paid to discerning strengths or developing people’s positive attributes for the sake of both the individuals and the organization.
  • When it comes to feedback, people tend to be uncomfortable whether delivering or receiving it. No matter how “constructive” the criticism, most people feel diminished by getting it and resented for giving it. This exercise provides a wonderful opportunity to practice feedback from both sides because the experience is positive for both the giver and the getter.

But this exercise shouldn’t be undertaken lightly, just to give people a boost. Participants should have a real sense of each other’s work and enough interpersonal interaction to make it meaningful; in fact, it helps if they’ve gone through some give-and-take and hard times with each other. And the praise cannot be superficial. The whole value lies in its being concrete and personal.

The Virtuous Cycle of Praise

People who take part in this exercise are both surprised and gratified to learn how valued they are, and the variety and depth of strength that others recognize in them. Sometimes there are tears. Participants feel seen in a new way, sometimes for the first time, or as never before in any aspect of their lives. They often feel closer to each other and typically become more willing to support each other.

And the group can be reinvigorated — thrown into an upward trajectory — by its members’ new appreciation of each other’s wonderful capabilities. The participants with the most foresight may even start thinking about how to deploy so much skill and strength.

In this particular session, the group identified strengths that ranged from “determination,” “visionary insight,” and “nuanced critical thinking” to “willing and supportive collaboration,” “composure under pressure,” and “fearlessness” — and so many more! It was a beautiful thing to observe. It was evident from the earnest faces, occasional smiles, and frequently shining eyes how much pleasure and satisfaction there is in giving as well as receiving praise.

And I want to say how very proud and grateful I was to have been able to work with the LK 2015 Dev Team at Highlights for the last several months. May they all continue from strength to strength!

Onward and upward,

LK

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