I led a project some time ago, and Jessica, the most experienced member of my team, was struggling. The problem wasn't her work--she was performing brilliantly--but she felt a bit burnt out. The client we were serving wasn't an easy one, and to quote Jessica: "I'm no spring chicken anymore, you know. I can't go on like this much longer."

I reassured her that I appreciated her work, and that I would give her a break from assignments like this one for awhile. We completed the last few days of work without Jessica, as she moved on to another project. Upon wrapping up, we received stellar feedback from the client, and I knew who I wanted to call first.

I wasn't sure if Jessica would pick up, because it was a Friday evening and work was probably the last thing she wanted to talk about. But she answered, and after I asked how the rest of the week went, I let her know the good news. I told her it was some of the best feedback we had ever gotten from any client, and how much that meant coming from them. I also thanked her specifically for her role on the project, and told her I knew it wouldn't have gone as well without her work.

You could "hear" the smile on the other line. She thanked me (twice) for taking the time to call her. She finished by saying: "You don't know how much this phone call means to me. I'd be happy to help out on a similar project in the future."

Wow. What a change. Granted, there could have been a few factors at work here, but I'm convinced that one thing made the biggest difference: the sharing of sincere and authentic praise. This was no empty flattery, designed just to see what more we could get out of Jessica in the future. It was simply taking a moment to give credit where credit was due--an act that, unfortunately, a significant number of leaders neglect.

As an accomplished member of one sales team put it: It would be nice to hear the words 'nice job' once in a while.

In my work, I find that many leaders would like to be better at commending their workers, but they're not sure where to begin. So how can you cultivate a more effective praise culture at your workplace?

Here are three tips:

1. Look for opportunities to commend.

In the United States, many managers are trained to give positive feedback before negative: The dreaded 'feedback sandwich'. But this isn't only highly ineffective, it actually distances you from the one receiving the feedback. (If you're interested in a much better way to give negative feedback, read this.)

Additionally, there is limited effect in commending someone only when they're already frustrated about something. If you remember, I initially gave Jessica positive feedback after she complained about her situation...but I doubt it helped much at the time.

Instead, look for chances to give someone authentic praise, at 'normal' times. Commend right away when you see something that deserves it. If you witness an employee make a major mistake, do you wait a long time to communicate it? Probably not; you'd be in danger of minimizing the impact of what happened, or forgetting to say something altogether.

View praise in the same way: If you see something that you like, tell the person as soon as possible. If you can't do it immediately, make a note or set a reminder to make sure you don't forget.

2. Be specific.

Tell your people what exactly you appreciate about their work...not in an 'Ok, now I've checked that one off my list' sort of way. Keep it real. (Didn't mom teach you to always say thank you?)

Here's how it could play out in the workplace:

'Hi _________, do you have a minute? I wanted to tell you something. I know I don't say it enough--but I really appreciate what you're doing here. The way you handled that (project, client, problem) yesterday--it was great. I could really see your (specific quality you possess) in action, and how much it benefits us here. Keep up the good work.' (The more specific, the better.)

How would that make you feel?

Take time to really think about an individual's contribution, and then show you sincerely appreciate it.

3. See the potential.

What if you struggle to find something to commend someone on? As one client of mine said recently: You say 'be authentic.' But you can't praise everyone, right?

Wrong. Everybody deserves to be praised for something. Maybe it's the fact that they've stayed loyal to the company for years. Or that they haven't completely given up on a difficult project, despite personal struggles. Your job is to think hard about what you appreciate about these people too, because they need it as much as the others.

How so?

In his best-selling book 'Give and Take', Adam Grant cites a classic study led by Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal. In 18 different classrooms ranging from Kindergarten to the fifth grade, students took a Harvard cognitive ability test, which measured skills deemed critical to learning and problem solving. Rosenthal shared the test results with the teachers: Approximately 20 percent of the students had shown potential for "unusual intellectual gains over the course of the school year." Teachers naturally gave special attention to these 'gifted' students.

When students took the test a year later, the 'bloomers' had indeed improved more than the others--their IQ points rose at greater rates, and two years later they were still outgaining classmates. Nothing special here, right?

Except one thing. Grant writes:

"The students labeled as bloomers didn't actually score higher on the Harvard intelligence test. Rosenthal chose them at random.

The study was designed to find out what happened to students when teachers believed they had high potential. Rosenthal randomly selected 20 percent of the students in each classroom to be labeled as bloomers, and the other 80 percent were a control group. The bloomers weren't any smarter than their peers--the difference 'was in the mind of the teacher.'

...Teacher's beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies."

The point?

See the potential in everyone. All of your people are talented in different ways; it's your job to see those talents, and to bring out the best in them.

Support them. Encourage them. Develop them. Praise them.

Because whether they know it or not, it's exactly what they need.

Published on: Feb 24, 2015
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