Why praise feels so good

27 July 2020 -

Three smiling womenAn 11-point checklist to discover whether you’re giving (and receiving) enough appreciation

Kevin Murray CCMI

Leaders seldom praise enough, even though positive feedback is the breakfast of champions. It’s even worse, now, due to the huge pressures on them to find solutions to the myriad problems induced by the Covid-19 crisis.

Leaders are often possessed of the quality of being driven people, which means that they think nothing is ever good enough and everything could be improved. It is that drive that made them leaders but made it also makes it difficult for them to find things to recognise and praise. They are too busy asking themselves: What can be improved? How can we generate more revenue, faster? How can we save costs? How can we cope with social distancing requirements? How can we get employees to come back to the office? How can we arrange the office to conform with legal requirements? The list goes on and on and focusing only on that list will mean they won’t focus on the one thing that will do more to help them achieve their goals than anything else.

Praise triggers neurochemicals that enable creativity

Being praised boosts our self-esteem and our engagement, because it triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centre of the brain. Dopamine also contributes to innovative thinking and creative problem-solving. It is win–win.

These effects, however, are short-lived, which is why the leaders who are considered most effective are the ones who are giving feedback regularly, heavily biased to recognising good work and encouraging improvement. When managers are effective at recognising their employees, they are not only more trusted, but they have lower staff turnover rates than other managers and achieve better results. There is a caveat, however. The praise must be deserved, for empty praise has little or no value – in fact, it can reduce a leader’s credibility. It can do more harm than no praise at all. We want feedback that is positive and fits with our view of our performance. We don’t want critical feedback that is unhelpful or useless. We need to know exactly what alternative behaviours look like, and why they will produce better results. We don’t want praise for our personal characteristics, though that is nice; we would much rather have advice that was specifically about behaviours, either ones that are desirable or ones that will not be helpful in future. Instead of telling us what we are doing wrong, focus rather on what we should do instead, in detail, if you want an improvement.

‘That was a good job on the sales assignment,’ is too general, and yet this is exactly where leaders fall down because this is how they so often give praise. Positive feedback needs to be specific and needs to be timely. Instead of this generalised statement, be more specific. Your praise will be appreciated even more if you said: ‘I love the work you did on why consumers don’t go into stores anymore. It was the key insight that gave us the edge in our sales pitch. Great job.’

Appreciative leaders spend time trying to catch people out on the good work they do, not on the bad work. Their praise is sincere and heartfelt, and it is frequent and varied. They will have thought about the role every member of the team played in a winning effort and will be sure to specifically recognise that role. Each and every time something good happens. Their praise takes many forms. It might be delivered in a one-to-one meeting in the corridor. It might be publicly recognised at a team session. It might be in a personal handwritten note.

Good leaders create a culture of recognition. They encourage employees to bring them examples of great work, so that they can praise people. Better yet, they encourage employees to recognise each other. They regularly remind people how they feel when they’re at their best and encourage them to visualise those moments to enable them to repeat them.

Praise the unsung heroes

It is easy to recognise heroes, but affective leaders look for ways to praise the unsung heroes, the reliable backroom boys and girls who made every- thing possible but were not individually able to shine. One manager who worked for me always impressed me when he would go to our IT department after a new client pitch. He would tell them that we won that pitch in part because the IT department had done such a good job in ensuring that the presentations went smoothly and without a hitch. Next time he asked for a special effort from the IT department, he never had a problem getting the technical people to go above and beyond.

He also talked to the receptionists and told them how their warm greetings and helpfulness had wowed the client. That not only put a smile on their faces when receiving the praise, it ensured they would be smiling heartily at other clients when they came in our door. I would often hear him really digging into work to find out what people had done and why what they did was important. Then he would go out and praise someone.

He was also brilliant at coaching his teams to better performance. He would never offer criticism himself, but in any team review he would start by praising what had gone well. He would then ask members of the team to suggest ways that they could make it even better next time. He would often counter critical comments by suggesting they were being too harsh on themselves, but still nudging them to improve. I always thought that was a brilliant trick – he got them to be self-critical and then built them up, focusing them on the improved ways of doing things. Although now aware of an area for improvement, members of his team still felt the nourishing effect of his praise.

Be a strength finder

The strongest leaders are strength finders. They look for the strengths in others and look for ways to enhance those strengths. They bring together the strengths of all of their team members and ensure that everyone on the team knows what each other’s strengths are. When you link great work to a person’s strength, you become more effective in giving praise. For example: “Anna, I know how creative you’ve always been, and those illustrations for our sales pitch this morning really brought the data to life. Well done, we wouldn’t have won that proposal without you.” You’ve done three great things in here – you’ve used her name, you’ve identified her strength, and you’ve related it to specific work in a timely way.

Great leaders always find a way to link good work to the purpose of the organisation. We all want to feel that what we do is meaningful, and that what we do is important. It is soul destroying to believe that all the effort we put in is neither recognised nor worthwhile.

When you are both specific in your praise, and you link it to a higher purpose, you are now operating at a very high level of praise giving. Something like this: ‘You did a great job today finding a way to get that part to our maintenance people. That was so important. Had they not got that part we would have disappointed a customer, and we would have failed in our mission to be the best service organisation in the world.’

Praise that is specific, timely, sincere, linked to a person’s strengths and connected to the purpose of the organisation is high praise indeed.

Don’t fall into the trap of being quick to criticise and slow to praise. Most managers believe themselves to be more effective when they give criticism, and vastly underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. Ask an employee how they feel, however, and they’ll tell you that too much negative feedback diminishes a leader in their eyes. Bosses who respect them, recognise them and encourage them are the ones they will always rate the highest.

Here’s your appreciation checklist:

  • Do you avoid giving feedback either positive or negative?
  • Do you criticism more than you praise?
  • Do you praise members of your team frequently enough?
  • Do you give constructive feedback, always leaving employees feeling good about it?
  • Do you constantly look for strengths and good work in order to give timely recognition?
  • Do you make your praise specific?
  • Do you link your praise to the purpose of your organisation?
  • Do you praise everyone evenly enough, even unsung heroes?
  • Do you praise person-to-person, and publicly?
  • Do you send letters of praise?
  • Do you encourage a culture of praise and recognition?

Kevin Murray CCMI, is a business author and speaker with more than 45 years of leadership experience. This is an exclusive extract from his new book Charismatic Leadership: The skills you can learn to motivate high performance in others (published by Kogan Page). You can find out more about his work here.

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