In my consulting work, when I ask team members in startups and small businesses how they know whether they are doing a good job, the typical response I get is "Nobody has yelled at me today," or "No news is good news."
Worse yet, you may be practicing what leadership expert Ken Blanchard calls "seagull management," where you set goals with people and disappear until something goes wrong. Then you fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everybody, and fly out. I can relate to this and other insights in his new book, "Simple Truths of Leadership," with co-author Randy Conley.
In my experience on both sides of the business management aisle, I see the value of these authors' focus on the power of effective and timely praise in reinforcing behavior that moves people closer to their goals and yours:
1. Praise people immediately for doing something right.
Time is of the essence here. Don't wait for the next performance appraisal, or for an accumulation of good events. In fact, it's more impactful to give the praise in public, as long as it doesn't negate the role of others, or cause political strife. A little competition for results is always a good thing.
One mistake to avoid in all cases is to dress up praise as a comparison to others, such as "You were the best speaker today." When you praise one at another's expense, you're lifting someone up with one hand, but swatting someone else down with another.
2. Be specific on the behavior you want to reinforce.
As obvious as it may be to you, you can't afford any misinterpretation on your perspective. I often find large disconnects between your goals and objectives, versus those perceived by your team members, due to lack of clear communication, and the personal or situational biases of every individual.
Even better, you can assist and support the desired behavior, as outlined by many sources on servant leadership. Servant leaders educate through words and actions, and they encourage their people to set aside self-serving behaviors in favor of serving others.
3. Tell them why it is important and how good you feel.
To get full engagement, everyone on your team needs to understand the "why" as well as "what" they are expected to do. Your team members need the "why" to extrapolate their behavior and good performance to the next level. Feelings are a large part of that extension process.
You also need to be sensitive that today's team typically crosses multiple generations of workers, and each generation is motivated by different feelings. It's your responsibility to relate to each, and integrate them into a cohesive culture for your organization.
4. Give a person time to feel good in your presence.
After you offer praise, a pause is the ideal time to get positive feedback on things learned, and work remaining to be done. A quick exit may send the wrong message, and will always leave your team member with qualms about your sincerity, or your real understanding of the work accomplished.
5. Encourage them to do more of the same.
We all need more time to focus on positive results, rather than hear coaching only on things gone wrong. This is your chance to outline career growth paths for your employee, and suggest ways to take on more responsibility. Encouragement is always a more powerful motivator than reprimands.
6. Show confidence in their progress and future.
It is always important to take an active role in employee development, and that starts by recognizing and reinforcing good behavior and results. The next step is to provide mentoring and training, as well as your support and confidence to take on more challenging assignments and responsibilities.
I'm confident that you will find timely praise to be a better motivator for your team members than annual performance reviews, and certainly better than frequent critiques of their performance.
When praise is combined with positive mentoring and support, you may find a new team focus on engagement and results that will drive your business as well as their career to a whole new level.