We hardly ever think about it, but a leader's words are a powerful means for motivating people at work.  But where do you start with what to say, or even how to say things that will inspire?

According to Dr. Paul White, co-author of The New York Times bestseller The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, words of affirmation are the primary way employees like to be shown appreciation in the workplace.

White came to that conclusion after his team analyzed data from responses from over 100,000 employees who have taken the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory.  White says "almost half of all employees (over 45%) prefer receiving verbal praise as their primary language of appreciation."

That's consistent with Gallup research data involving 4 million workers across more than 30 industries. They found that employees who receive verbal praise on a regular basis (at least once per week) increase their individual productivity, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and are more likely to stay with their organization.

How and What to Praise?

So what are the affirming words and phrases people in positions of influence can bestow on their employees? The key is not just in what you say, but how you say it. As you can see below, the more specific you are about what you're affirming the better. It makes the praise that much more meaningful. Also, what to praise your employees typical falls into these areas.

Give praise for performance.

It's important for employees to know that their leaders are taking notice. So, as leaders, show them that you do pay attention to what really matters. Use these two sample examples for your own specific acts of praise. 

  1. "I know that analyzing the mountain of data for our presentation was extremely challenging and time consuming. You did an outstanding job interpreting the results in a way that everybody understood."
  2. "I can't tell you how much your extra mentoring efforts for the new employees have meant to the whole team. They have hit the ground running fast because of your help onboarding them those crucial first three months. The whole team has exceeded their productivity because of it."

Give praise for character and leadership traits.

People don't want to be praised solely for performance and results, but for other attributes they feel are equally important to driving the business forward. Things like communication skills for pulling a challenging team together, resilience for bouncing back with strong numbers after a tough quarter, and personal values that mirror organizational values in handling a tricky customer dilemma. By praising people for character traits, you reinforce the cultural behaviors that make the company a great place to work.  Here are two examples you can translate to your own situation:

  1. "Your positive and upbeat nature on Monday mornings makes such a difference to the team. They all look forward to Mondays more and really feed off of your positive energy that lasts throughout the week. Because of it, it has spread to other teams as well."
  2. "The way you handled last week's crisis with your calm, cool and confident demeanor was a game changer. Instead of people panicking and blaming each other, your attitude helped the team focus on coming up with solutions for the client and fixing the process so it doesn't happen again. Your were instrumental in saving the company from losing one of its best clients."

Give praise by affirming their future.

According to Gallup research, lack of job security was one of the top reasons for employees leaving their companies. To address this issue, employees need to feel secure in their future and be able to see themselves participating in it, especially during phases of transition. Here's one example of how managers can communicate praise by affirming their employees' future:

"You've really made a tremendous difference here and I'm thankful you joined the team. Moving forward, know that your role is important to our success and we can't  improve further without your expertise."

Give praise by asking to learn from them.

Affirm an employee's skills by asking him or her to teach you his or her methods, or to give you feedback on critical decisions. This shows both great respect for their abilities and how much you value their expertise. Examples:

  1. "The improvements to the new system were awesome. Can you show me how you did it? I'd love to use that as a prototype for other developers to implement."
  2. "We have an important meeting coming up with the board. Since you're the expert, I really value your opinion. I have an idea on a new technology I'd love your feedback on before I consider presenting it." 

Give praise with rewards attached.

Employees that are deserving of praise work hard for going above and beyond the call of duty. So its fitting to affirm them with an unexpected reward, like taking time off.

  1. "You've gone above and beyond this week. I want you to take the rest of the day off to recharge." 
  2. "What you brought to this department the last three months has been invaluable. I know you requested a vacation. We'd like to cover your flight expenses to your destination."