How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?

by Sam on August 26, 2009

thank you

00:10 Answer: If you’re already subscribed to the biweekly one-minute emails coming off this site, you may remember that you’re about to learn the reason why my COO friend Jack, blew his expression of gratitude to Amber for a job well done. (If it’s been a while since you read the “Praise Miser” ASK you may want to review it in the July archives.)

In order to take full advantage of the motivational power of your praise, use the ideas that follow. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Jack’s mistake(s) even before I tell you.

1. Get your heart right about praise. See the 7-29-09 ASK in the archives to identify a current belief you may need to abandon in order to be well-intentioned enough to unleash your appreciation powers.

2. Be sincere! Don’t praise merely because I or anyone else tells you that it’s a good idea. Acknowledgment must stem from an earnest desire to lift a person up. If that doesn’t feel right to you, the conniving nature of your commendation will be easily discovered and deeply resented.

3. Don’t pass it out like candy. Scarcity equals value. If you praise too much, it can lose its value. But don’t worry about this one. I have yet to hear of such a case in my 24 years of leadership coaching. I did see a movie once where it was a problem.

4. Keep it short. You may remember that the superb best-selling book The One Minute Manager recommended one-minute praisings. Don’t do it! Praise someone for that long and they’ll upchuck on your shoes. It takes one-half second to say, “Thank you.” If you want to splurge, it takes two seconds to say, “You did a great job on that report.” If you have as many as four seconds to spare, splurge with “I appreciate your willingness to stay late in order for us to meet that deadline.”

5. Drop your skepticism. Don’t wait to see more of a behavior before paying tribute to it: “I’ll say something when I’m sure it’s permanent.” Don’t feel entitled to the behavior: “It’s about time!” Don’t be suspicious of sudden improvement: “What’s she up to now?”

6. Don’t negate it. Never follow congratulations with “Make sure you keep it that way,” “It’s about time” or even “Keep up the good work.” The best thing you can do after honoring improvement is to disappear. Don’t give one and take two back. Don’t blow up the balloon and then stick a pin in it.

7. Praise the deed, not the doer. You’ve learned “Condemn the deed, not the doer” as a constructive criticism principle–see the 7/22/09 archives. Guess what! The same is true for praise. What do you want your people to be turned on by? You? No! Themselves? No! Their work? Yes! So extol their work, not them.

8. Give a hand written note of thanks. A permanent record of your approval means a lot. One that comes from your hand will mean even more than one that rolls off a laser printer or pops up in an email. I have seen such notes framed and hanging in cubicles.

9. Post an entry in the employee’s personnel file. This action is a first cousin of #8.

10. Thank people for not doing the wrong thing. You read this right! Your leadership role occasionally calls upon you to convert employee behavior from dysfunctional to functional, from unproductive to productive, and from troublesome to trouble free. When as a result of your coaching, employees succeed at any of these transformations, they will be looking for appreciation of the favor they feel they have done for you. Zero thanks from you will be interpreted as not caring about them or their improvement. Back sliding may well result.

11. Get people’s names out there. You’ve heard that what you know doesn’t matter as much as who you know. But even more important than who you know is who knows you. One the most valued forms of acknowledgment is to showcase your people in the company, in the community, and even in the industry. Do you allow the accomplishments (the shining light) of your rising stars to be widely seen? Or do you allow fear of losing them tempt you hide them under a bushel basket?

12. For every two times you praise someone, say something nice to others about that person. This is similar to #11. The only thing that great leaders do behind people’s backs is pat them.

13. Favor “team of the month” over “employee of the month.” It always amazes me that while we pay great lip service to teamwork, we subvert that goal by extolling the virtues of individual effort over that of a team. You’ll see next why this was part of Jack’s lapse of judgment.

14. Be careful where you do it. Somewhere along the way Jack apparently heard and bought into the adage, “Condemn in private, praise in public.” He learned the hard way how poorly this idea can fare in practice. Indeed, Amber had done a great job on the training conference, but she didn’t do it alone. Hearers of public praise who are not receivers are prone to one of three reactions: “What about the contribution I made?” “He never praises me that way.” “She’s a teacher’s pet.”

Application: Pick three people in your life who need a word of encouragement from you. Identify them and plan the encounter in a way that honors the do’s and don’ts above.

Aphorism: Good bosses make their people think they have more ability than they have, so they consistently do better work than they thought they could. ~Charles E. Wilson

Approaching: An email request will get you a sneak preview of any of these “coming attractions.”

9/9: Why do many performance appraisals fail to improve performance?

9/23: What role do manners and civility play in the workplace?

10/07: How can I wow the audience when I make a presentation?

10/21: How can I/we run more effective meetings?

11/4: What should be our rules of engagement at meetings?

11/18: How can we get employees to provide world class service to customers?

12/02: How can we get employees to provide world class service to each other?

12/16: What should I have on my list of goals for personal achievement?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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