Practically every executive knows that praise is a crucial management tool. Gallup research shows that when managers recognize employees’ strengths and positive characteristics, rather than focusing on their weaknesses and negative characteristics, employee engagement goes up significantly. But what are your options if praising employees feels foreign and uncomfortable to you?
Many executives feel awkward, if not downright resistant, about praising employees, no matter how successful they are otherwise. I’ve observed this situation particularly with leaders whose family or academic backgrounds were notably short on explicit positive recognition. Either praise was denigrated as a form of manipulation, or the authority figure believed it would backfire and suppress internal motivation and drive.
Not All “Successful” Leaders Are Comfortable with Praise
One of my clients is a senior leader who is particularly self-conscious about delivering praise. Giving compliments feels inauthentic to her, as if she were trying to manipulate the employee and create a false sense of closeness. An additional obstacle is her own belief that because she doesn’t care for praise herself, and that meeting her own high standards is enough, others should feel the same way, too.
And yet, she agrees conceptually that most employees view praise as a kind of reward and that it enhances both employee engagement and ongoing employee development. She also knows that her own performance would benefit if she was able to give appropriate praise in context so that employees could tell she cared. She’s heard from HR several times that it’s necessary, and she has accepted the need to learn to praise as a goal. Nonetheless, it was a real challenge for her to adopt the new behavior.
You Don’t Have to Change Yourself, Just a Bit of Behavior
For executives who feel uncomfortable giving praise, the immediate goal is not to feel comfortable — because you won’t. Instead, it’s to learn by doing, because with ongoing practice, you’ll eventually feel more normal and less like a fraud. Here are three ways to get started.
Piggyback on someone else’s praise. One of the easiest forms of praise is to echo: You can encourage the members of your team to provide peer-to-peer praise, and then “second the motion.” Peer-to-peer praise can serve as a kind of template you can cherry-pick, identifying the types of praise which seem worthwhile to you and observing which kinds of praise are most meaningful to employees.
Express thanks as a form of praise. Notice when employee action makes your job easier, saves you from the need to prompt or criticize, or moves forward initiatives you care about. Whenever you feel gratitude or relief, flag it as an opportunity to express acknowledgment or appreciation. If you structured these conversations according to the formula of your reaction + their action = thanks as recognition, you can feel confident that your praise is authentic and not phony. For example, “I was so happy to see that you coordinated with everyone on your team to complete the project ahead of schedule. Thank you for saving me the time and stress of following up. I really appreciate it!”
Actively solicit input from other observers. Critical feedback is much better received when you’ve built up a track record of positive comments, so the recipient has confidence in the relationship and can take in your meaning rather than reacting with defensiveness and negativity. John Gottman, a noted relationship researcher, recommends a magic ratio of 5:1 positive to negative comments for relationship stability. If you don’t have a lot of positive content to share on your own, ask your colleagues or your team members’ colleagues for their positive experiences — and then mention these affirmative comments as input you’re happy to hear about.
No matter how personally difficult it may be to praise employees with the frequency and specificity they need, the research shows that it’s worth making the effort, diligently. These three approaches can help you turn employees’ need for praise into a straightforward set of concrete behaviors that will become more natural to you with consistent practice. Try them out — and create a virtuous cycle for your employees, your organization, and yourself.
Onward and upward,