Human beings thrive on praise. Although all of us need praise to help make us feel good about ourselves, you can’t praise people indiscriminately: Praise should be reserved for accomplishments that are worthy of special acknowledgment. So, how do you deal with people who never do anything particularly praiseworthy?
My friend Joanna faced this situation in her group of word processors at work. Several marginal operators had the attitude that, as long as they met their quotas, they were doing okay. Praising them for meeting quotas only reinforced their faith that nothing more was anticipated of them. Criticism of their failure to do more than the quota required was greeted with the response “I’m doing my job.”
Joanna decided to try positive reinforcement. She gave one of the operators a special assignment for which no production quota had been set. When the job was completed, Joanna praised the employee’s fine work. She followed this practice with all new assignments and eventually had the opportunity to genuinely praise each of the word processors.
As important as praise is in motivating people, it doesn’t always work. Some supervisors praise every minor activity, withdrawing the value of praise for real accomplishments. Others convey praise in such a way that it seems phony. To make your praise more meaningful, follow these suggestions:
- Don’t overdo it. Praise is sweet. Candy is sweet, too, but the more you eat, the less sweet each piece becomes, and you may get a stomachache. Too much praise reduces the benefit that’s derived from each bit of praise; if it’s overdone, it loses its value altogether.
- Be sincere. You can’t fake sincerity. You must truly believe that what you’re praising your associate for is actually commendable. If you don’t believe it yourself, neither will your associate.
- Be specific about the reason for your praise. Rather than say, “Great job!” it’s much better to say, “The report you submitted on the XYZ matter enabled me to understand more clearly the complexities of the issue.”
- Ask for your associate’s advice. Nothing is more flattering than to be asked for advice about how to handle a situation. This approach can backfire, though, if you don’t take the advice. If you have to discard advice, ask people questions about their insufficient answers until they see the error of their ways and reissue good advice.
- Publicize praise. Just as a warning should always be given in private, praising should be done (whenever possible) in public. Sometimes the matter for which praise is given is a private issue, but it’s more often appropriate to let your entire group in on the praise. If other staff members are aware of the praise you give a colleague, it spurs them to work for similar recognition.