columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

One of my struggles in managing my team is with recognition -- but oddly, it's not the usual problem of under-recognizing effort. I'm afraid I may occasionally get too effusive with my thanks for my team's comfort, or thank someone one time too many. Additionally, I find that I occasionally stun some of them by thanking them for doing tasks that I find incredibly helpful, yet they consider to be business as usual.

I have frequent one-on-ones and team meetings and have built a strong rapport, and I have determined that they operate from a sense of equal fairness while I prefer equitable fairness. I have factored that into public recognition. I'm not sure that my team members even really have a problem with my saying thanks too much -- it might be that they haven't heard it before.

How would you suggest I broach this topic -- if I even bring it up? Is this something I should mention to my team, or is this something I should work on for myself and not mention?

Green responds:

I would look at it this way: It's important to recognize people's contributions, but the recognition should be commensurate with what they've actually done or it will lose its meaning.

If you effusively praise people for just doing the normal parts of their job and things that didn't take a lot of effort, you're pretty quickly going to lower the value of your praise, meaning that when you really need to recognize someone for something important, you won't have the tools to do it with.

It can also feel condescending to people if you go overboard, as if you had really low expectations of them, and/or think that they need constant reinforcement, and/or see them as something far from a peer.

That of course doesn't mean that you should be stingy with your praise, miserly parceling it out on only the rarest occasions. It's important to keep talking to your team about what they're doing well. But you do need to be thoughtful about how you praise.

In your case, it jumps out at me that you've phrased a lot of your letter in terms of thanking people. That framing is fine in some cases -- "I really appreciate that you made this happen during an already busy week" or whatever -- but I think you'd be better off offering feedback rather than thanks. You want to give people clear feedback about what they're doing well (as well as where they could do better, of course, but that's not what we're talking about here). It's not really about thanks (although I'm sure you do feel thankful to have good staff).

Conveniently, the best way to give positive feedback also happens to be the best way to make praise more meaningful, and that's to make it as specific as possible. Instead of "great work!" or "thanks so much for your hard work on X," talk about why it was great work -- for example, that their quick turn-around on a last-minute project meant you were able to make a crucial deadline that had been in jeopardy, or that preparation for an important meeting won over a notoriously hard-to-please client, or whatever it might be.

I think if you switch your mindset to "I am giving people feedback on what they're doing well" rather than "I am expressing gratitude," you'll change the tenor of the praise, more easily spot times when it would feel overboard, and end up having significantly more impact.

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