Just because praising others comes easily as a leader, don’t be lulled into thinking that your commendations and congratulations are effective and welcomed. Praise, just like constructive feedback, takes skillful delivery. These tips will provide perspective on giving commendations that motivate rather than deflate.
Notice opportunities to praise. Some leaders think they’re too busy to comment on “little things.” Some managers neglect to praise others because they’re too hard on themselves. They see even stellar performance from themselves as routine. They do good work, they get a paycheck, and they expect no verbal pats on the back. So they take it for granted that others operate on that same principle.
They operate under the same philosophy as the husband who had been married for 40 years and never told his wife he loved her. When she complained, he replied, “I told you I loved you the day we got married; if I change my mind, I’ll let you know.” The boss’s version of that thinking: “You’re still working here, aren’t you? If you make a mistake, I’ll let you know.” For better relationships, take notice of praiseworthy effort, performance, or results. If you don’t see something on the surface, look harder.
Consider emotional “behavior” as praise worthy. For a customer service rep to keep her cool under pressure when dealing with an irate customer can take as much presence of mind as designing an ad campaign. And it can be as important, as well. When it comes to praise, don’t limit your thinking to action or performance. Examples: “Thank you for being honest about the situation and your misjudgment.” “Your reaction to the criticism in the staff meeting this morning was commendable. You zeroed in on the issues and discarded the guff without defensiveness.” “I admire the way you stood firm in your position yesterday, but did not become aggressive with the customer. That takes finesse and patience that many people don’t have.”
Don’t let hierarchy dissuade you from awarding praise. Bosses usually dish out the praise to staff members, but that doesn’t mean that they would not benefit from and appreciate sincere words from others. A two-star general in the U.S. Army arrived at a post to conduct the promotion ceremony for several lower-ranking officers. Afterward, one colonel who was most impressed with the ceremony approached the general and commented, “Sir, may I give you a little feedback?”
The general cleared his throat and nodded. The colonel continued, “As you can imagine, I’ve seen hundreds of these ceremonies, and most of them are routine. But this one was not. You personalized your comments to each of the officers, and you remarked on what they had done to deserve the promotion. That took time and preparation. I could tell that it was a meaningful ceremony for the officers involved and their families.”
The general smiled broadly. “Thanks for saying that. That’ll make my day.” He paused. “In fact, that’s good enough to make my year.” Superiors seldom hear praise. If you mean it, say it.
Watch out for one-up praise. Take care not to place yourself in a superior, judgmental position when commending someone. For example, consider this comment delivered to a speaker after a presentation: “I enjoyed your presentation. You did a nice job in comparing one investment to another. I think you mentioned all the relevant tax laws most people need to concern themselves with.” That compliment implies that the giver is in a position to judge the thoroughness or accuracy of the content that the speaker presented. In a similar situation, be careful in your phrasing so that you’re not elevating your own expertise. A better phrasing of the previous compliment: “I enjoyed your presentation. Your comparison of investments was intriguing, and your insights on the tax laws were some I’ve not heard shared before today.”
Establish your credibility to give the commendation. Not all praise is equal. You can destroy the value of your compliment if the receiver doesn’t respect you or if she doesn’t consider you to be in a position to judge. Other ways to damage your ability to praise include giving it lavishly, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose, with the wrong wording. Praise in and of itself is not automatically a motivator.
Read more tips in Part 2 next week.
What was one of the most motivating commendations you’ve ever received from a boss or coworker?