8 tips for effective employee praise

Some managers are natural cheerleaders. They smile. They celebrate accomplishments with high-fives, team huddles, and even over-the-top dinners.

Other managers are naturally more serious. They present a poker face. It’s hard to tell what they are feeling at any given moment. They may be satisfied with your work or not. You have no idea unless they say something.

A subset of this latter group seems to speak up only when something is wrong—a mistake that needs to be fixed, an unhappy customer, or a budget overrun. When this manager comes to your desk, you shrink a little on the inside, because you suspect the conversation will lead to a late night of re-working a deliverable that didn’t meet your boss’ exacting standards.

If praising employees does not come naturally to you, here are a few tips for crafting words to motivate your team.

  1. Stay in character. If you don’t normally walk the halls congratulating folks, it will look suspicious if you suddenly start doing so. Employees may question your motives, rather than believing your kudos. Start with brief private praise.
  2. Be specific. “Good job” can come across as empty. Provide details on what you liked. These will help the employee know what to do more of in the future. For example, “I really liked the drawings you did for this project. The images included enough information so readers could see our key points without getting lost in details. Thank you for an excellent job.”
  3. Deliver the praise message by itself, instead of buried in a laundry list of other things you want to discuss with the employee. This way, the employee can absorb the praise fully before having to shift attention to a different topic.
  4. Be sparing. Some employees drink praise as if dying from thirst. They can’t seem to get enough. In contrast, others get annoyed by too many attaboys and stop taking you seriously. Both groups need praise, but it will be more meaningful if it comes in small doses, periodically. For those who seem to want daily encouragement, you’ll help them most by weaning them from the need for constant outside acknowledgement. You want them to develop an internal confidence—the ability to self-evaluate and say, “I did my best and I’m proud of my work.”
  5. Be self-effacing. If an employee has done something you couldn’t do yourself, say so. “Your command of the numbers is so much better than mine. I am really glad to have you on my team.” Or, “I never would have thought of this idea. It was a fantastic solution for handling the resource constraint.”
  6. Be sensitive. Public praise is tricky. A staff meeting announcement works if you are acknowledging a group’s effort. But don’t call out an individual performance in front of others. Some employees feel embarrassed to receive public praise. And sometimes, the mention can cause others to resent the high-performing employee or create unhealthy competition where individual employees begin vying for the manager’s accolades.
  7. Make sure to acknowledge the right people. Don’t automatically assume the salesperson sealed the deal. The proposal writer, a subject matter expert who helped with the sales presentation, or someone else may have done the key things that led to the sale. If you praise the wrong person, you risk coming across as out-of-touch with your people. And the folks who really did the work can feel resentful about not getting the credit.
  8. Praise the good aspects of imperfect projects. You may be cringing inside about the mistakes in a deliverable. You know the project can’t go out the door the way it is. But if you know the employee has given 110% effort, take a deep breath and think about what’s good in the project before you open your mouth. For example, “I can see you have worked hard on this report. Sections 1, 2, and 3 read beautifully and the analysis is spot on. Section 4 still needs some polishing. Let’s talk through how to finalize that part, and then I think it’s ready for prime time.” Doesn’t that feel better than, “Section 4 is a mess. You’ll have to fix that before we can release the report.”

What other tips have you found helpful? Hope you’ll share in the comments section below.

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