If you own a dog you already know all about the power of praise. When you praise Rover for fetching a ball or coming when called, you increase the likelihood that he will perform again in the same way. (We'll leave out cats for the moment since they seem to have a mind of their own, at least until you start shaking their bag of kibble.)
Employees are not, of course, analogous to pets you train, but there is a lesson in the value of frequent praise. When you praise employees for doing something you want them to do, you increase the likelihood that the behavior will become virtually automatic. When what had been an achievement now becomes second nature, the company (and the employee, for that matter) can advance to a new level of performance.
How to Sing Their Praises
Praise--from a simple spoken "thank you" to an eloquent encomium read aloud at an awards ceremony--can be delivered in three different ways: directly (in person), in front of others (publicly), and even when the employee is not around (this is sometimes known as "positive gossip"). Each method is effective, but for entirely different reasons.
When you praise someone directly for her performance, you are making a very personal statement: "I like what you did, and I'm proud of you for doing it." Direct praise can be delivered verbally (in person or by phone call), in writing, or electronically (by way of an e-mail message, website posting, blog shout-out, etc.)
When you praise an employee publicly you amplify its impact many-fold. This is because the person who receives the praise gets the opportunity to experience the pride of being called out in front of his peers--whether it be in a staff meeting, a casual encounter in the office, or at a large company event--for doing something well. (Unfortunately, all too many employees don't get attention from their manager unless they do something wrong.)
Praising employees when they aren't there to hear it may sound pointless, but in fact it is a great way to echo your message of praise throughout the organization. Your good words will eventually reach your intended target, and far from being upset about being spoken of by you they'll be delighted. Much as giving praise publicly multiplies its effect, so too does praising someone when he or she isn't around, because it (almost literally) reverberates through the company.
How do you actually engage in this "positive gossip"? You could send an email to the employee's coworker, praising something she did; or praise an employee at a staff meeting that he does not attend; or ask another manager to thank the employee for something that you want to be sure is recognized.
Remember: Praising an employee for a job well done costs you and the organization nothing, and there is no cap on the amount of praise you can give. Praise is the original renewable resource--why not spread it around?