I was a young manager when my boss, Marc, called me in to his office.
I was sweating. What did I do wrong? Was I in trouble?
I sat there, tense and nervous.
And then, it happened:
Much to my surprise, I wasn't in trouble at all. Instead of pointing out my recent mistakes (of which there were many), Marc told me exactly what I had been doing right--and encouraged me to keep up the good work.
It was just what I needed. It built my self-confidence and also built trust between Marc and me. Marc wasn't a boss who was eager to point out every single thing I got wrong; he was a coach, a mentor. Someone who focused on the good, saw my potential, and wanted me to succeed.
I learned a lot from Marc about how to give emotionally intelligent feedback: namely, that commendation needs two things to be effective.
First, it's got to be sincere.
And second, it has to be specific.
What the research says
There's a body of research that supports what I learned from Marc all those years ago.
Consider the following examples:
- Psychologists who analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise, determined that praise can be a powerful motivating force if you are sincere and specific.
- Researchers who studied the effect of praise on children found links between inflated (insincere) praise and the development of low self-esteem
Further, for years Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has studied the benefits of praising children's efforts ("You did a good job reading") as opposed to their character or ability ("You are so smart"). The specific praise, i.e., praising the child's efforts, proved superior in motivating children to continue to work hard in the future.
Another study by Dweck and her colleagues found that children who received specific praise (''You did a good job drawing'') were more resilient to criticism than those who received more general praise ("You are a good drawer"). In fact, participants who received specific praise performed better at future tasks than their counterparts.
This research illustrates the value of emotional intelligence in the real world--and it applies to the workplace, too.
If you regularly offer sincere and specific praise, you help to create what researchers refer to as a "psychologically safe" environment--one where team members feel safe to ask questions, take risks, and make mistakes.
This type of safe environment also makes it easier to offer negative feedback when needed. When you're in the habit of telling employees how much you appreciate the good things they do, they already see you as someone who is on their side, someone who is looking out for their best interests. So when you share constructive feedback, they won't see it as criticism--rather, as another attempt to help them improve.
For example, any time Marc had negative feedback to convey, I was all ears. He could be direct and to the point, knowing he already had my trust. I knew whatever Marc had to say was for my own good, so I tried my best to put it into practice.
But what if you lack the ability (or desire) to give sincere, specific praise--because you've never received it yourself?
If that's your situation, try this:
For one month, block off a certain amount of time per week to reflect on what you appreciate about a member of your team. Then, take a moment to write them a short note, give them a call, or go see them in person. Tell them specifically what you appreciate about their work, and why you appreciate it. Don't address any other topics or problems; just show them some love.
Remember, everyone has gifts and talents, areas where they excel. It's a leader's job not just to notice those positives, but to celebrate them.
Because if you tell people what they're doing right, they'll do more of it. And they'll appreciate you for helping them be the best version of themselves.