In 1990, anxious to rejoin the workforce after an unconvincing cameo appearance as housewife and mother, I took a copy-editing job with a technology publication. I was clearly overqualified for the position (she remarked humbly) and within a few months I was writing short articles, ghostwriting columns, and performing top-to-bottom overhauls of full-length pieces. One of the magazine's senior editors produced particularly opaque and turgid prose that required exhaustive rewriting just to determine that it made no sense. I would spend days taking down his harum scarum edifices brick by crumbling brick and rebuilding them into elegant and informative structures.
Not that the editor wasn't grateful. Whenever I finished with one of his pieces he would come by my office to thank me. 'I realized when I was driving home last night that I misspelled the word ‘ubiquitous,' he would say. 'Great work catching that.' Or: 'I can't believe I used a comma instead of a semicolon twice in the lead. You really saved me from myself on that one.'
Most bosses enjoy delivering praise, but some aren't very good at it. The most effective praise is specific and directly reflects the praisee's actual achievement. Telling Margo she does great work is less meaningful (for Margo anyway) than telling her she did great work salvaging the Moriarity account. Employees are acutely aware of what they have done well and take pride in it. Receiving praise that diminishes or sidesteps that achievement can be worse than receiving no praise at all.
Sometimes a boss will damn with faint praise for nefarious reasons. Consider my former nemesis. The charitable interpretation of his behavior is self-delusion. In order to sustain his undeserved self-esteem he needed to believe that more than 10% of the product going out under his byline was actually his work, and I had been assigned a role in this fantasy. Less charitably (and more likely), the guy was well aware how much I had done but didn't want anyone else to know. By creating a fiction that minimized my contribution and getting me to accede to it ('You're welcome,' I would say, my spine liquefying beneath my shirt) he reduced the risk of my ratting him out to the Powers That Be. 'Let's get our stories straight,' he seemed to imply. 'I am Content Guy, and you are my humble sidekick, Comma Girl. Don't get above yourself.'
More often, however, leaders praise poorly because they lack information about what is praiseworthy. I congratulate all graduates of the 12-step program for micromanagers. But be aware: as you spend more time at 30,000 feet you no longer see what Carl in operations and Andrea in marketing do all day. And of course when work is team-based, even the brightest star disappears within the larger constellation. Praising a whole team promotes collaboration, which is important. But if one or two contributions far exceed the rest, recognizing those outliers encourages others to match their performance.
The easiest way to identify exemplary performance is to make managers responsible for passing along good news about their direct reports. Acquire enough detail that when you bestow your encomium the employee knows you fully appreciate her genius/resourcefulness/leadership ability/dedication. And encourage others to report above-and-beyond activities as well. If an HR rep helps a frantic employee line up first-rate child-care and the CEO never hears about it, does the rep's good work make a sound?
Remember: you can't be too rich, too thin, or too specific. No one wants a pat on the head just for showing up.