Getting physically fitter inevitably involves plenty of hard work. So does learning a new language or any other complicated new skill (10,000 hours of hard work, in fact, if you believe some experts).

So maybe you think that becoming a better leader is also necessarily hard work. In some areas, you'd be right. Learning to give constructive criticism in a way that's valuable but not deflating is often tricky, many experienced managers agree. But you shouldn't conclude that there's no low-hanging fruit out there -- that everything you can do to get better is going to cost you serious effort.

In fact, research suggests that there's at least one simple change you can make to your management style today that will yield big benefits -- simply praise your team more.

The science of recognition

"In two separate but recent studies involving nearly 3,500 employees, from startups to Fortune 100 companies, we found that recognition directly affects morale and engagement," David Sturt, executive VP at O.C. Tanner Co, reported on HBR recently. One study found that 87 percent of employees who feel their companies have strong recognition practices also claimed to have a strong relationship with their manager. When their was less recognition, there were also far weaker bonds -- just 51 percent of employees at companies where praise was less frequent reported a good relationship with their boss.

Here's an even more startling statistic from the research: "Seven out of 10 employees who report they've received some form of appreciation from their supervisors say they're happy with their jobs. Without that recognition, just 39% say they're satisfied." In case you need reminding, separate research confirms that happy employees are productive employees.

Another study even found that praising an employee boosted not only the morale of the person being recognized, but that of the whole team. Seeing a co-worker presented with an award led onlookers to feel their organization cared more about them as well, the research revealed.

And it's not just Sturt's research that indicates that praise -- or its lack -- is a key factor in the relationship between a business leader and her team. When one recent poll asked respondents for their top complaints about their bosses, the most popular response was lack of recognition.

Get started today

Rarely is a business insight more actionable -- or more pleasant. Sturt recommends managers recognize great work consistently whenever they see it and without delay. Exactly what form that praise takes is up to you (though Sturt warns there are cultural differences -- Indians might enjoy a literal song and dance while the more bashful Brits don't like too much hoopla around praise).

If you're looking for inspiration though, Sturt explains that a handwritten note, calling someone out publicly for their work in a meeting, or even a formal award in front of a group have all been shown to be effective forms of recognition. There's also plenty of good advice available on the details of the right and wrong way to praise your team.

Who on your team could you praise today?

Published on: Nov 19, 2015
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