To paraphrase an old adage, praise is cheap. It costs nothing to give (except a few moments of time) and can yield high pay-offs in job satisfaction and increased individual performance. But that doesn’t mean it should be applied indiscriminately and with a broad brush. In fact, research shows that indiscriminant praise actually lowers performance.
I’ve read a lot lately about such pitfalls of praise. Much of this writing relates to the newest generation to hit the workforce. Some of these workers are characterized as being fragile in the face of criticism and in need of constant praise, even when their work is mediocre. I’ve seen more than one writer lay blame at the feet of the child psychologists of the past few decades who convinced parents, teachers and coaches that everyone should get a ribbon just for showing up. In some writers’ minds, society has created a disconnection between hard work, success and reward. While they make a good point, I think there are at least two things to consider when it comes to praise.
Number one: We all need praise and recognition. Praise raises our self esteem. To bestow praise only on the highest performers is to de-motivate the rest of your workforce. And only motivated employees will ever reach their potential.
Number two: Praise should be based on desired behaviors as well as results. In other words, you don’t have to wait for a home run to cheer. Let’s face it, we’re not all equally gifted and we can’t all knock it out of the park. The good things an employee does en route to achieving results are important, are largely under their control and are praiseworthy.
Some tips for praising employees:
1. Praise often. Go ahead. Make their day or, at least, their week.
2. Avoid vague praise as a rule. Although it’s good to toss out a heartfelt “Great job!” when targets are achieved, if you consistently give vague praise for mediocre performance, you reinforce mediocrity. The person has no way of sorting the good behaviors from the bad, and no reason to seek improvement.
3. On the flip side, praise specific behaviors that you’d like to see repeated.
4. If you can’t find something specific to praise, maybe you need to get to know the person and their work better. Invest time. Help them set targets, coach them on good habits and help them lock those habits in through praise.
Praise is indeed cheap. But, we can still treat it as a valuable resource.