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How to Use Praise to Motivate Your Staff

Praising is a management skill that is simple, inexpensive, and inexhaustible. Praise rewards when reward is due. It builds a feeling of goodwill and motivation. It provides positive encouragement to continue good practice and creative endeavour. It has a ripple effect, providing deserved acknowledgement for the person who is performing well, and conveying to an entire staff that good work will be recognised. But it is important that the right kind of praise be given in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons…

1. Find something to praise in every staff member.

If a compliment can boost the spirit, lack of one from important people can hurt for a long time. People need praise. If you look hard enough, you’ll catch even your borderline employees doing something right. Compliment them on that action right there and then. If you get into the habit of doing that, you’ll see their performance improve.

2. Praise spontaneously and frequently, but only if warranted.

The sooner you praise people, the more it means to them. Spontaneous compliments are usually sincere; they reinforce the exhilaration the recipient feels in the first glow of success or accomplishment. But compliments can be short-lived. They tend to evaporate soon after they are received. That’s why people need them often. A word of warning, however. Undeserved praise rarely produces positive results. Not only do you lose credibility through its unjustified use, but over time your staff will begin to ask themselves, ‘If my boss keeps saying I’m doing so well, then why should I try any harder?’ A degree of rarity tends to increase the value of anything – even praise for a job well done.

3. Be specific with your praise.

Generalities are rarely as effective as specifics. Don’t simply say, ‘Well done!’ Say instead, ‘I’m really impressed with the way you led our discussions at today’s staff meeting. You must have been putting a lot of thought into your suggestions on budgeting. A first rate job!’ Tell people exactly what you liked about their work and, in that way, they’re more likely to repeat the behaviours that pleased you.

4. Link your praise to skills requiring development.

You can help an employee develop a skill by focusing your compliments on the activity you want him or her to master. If you praise in small amounts and often, you’ll be surprised at the cumulative effect this has on skill development.

5. Be sincere.

Nothing will backfire more quickly than phony flattery. As British essayist Richard Steele once wrote: ‘When you praise, add your reasons for doing so; it is this which distinguishes the approbation of a man of sense from the flattery of the sycophants and admiration of fools.’

6. Praise effort, not just achievement.

By showing heartfelt appreciation to someone who has tried to reach a goal, you provide an incentive for that person to work harder. Praise for the genuine triers will motivate them to strive even further.

7. Praise initiative.

The office junior who quietly takes on the unpleasant tasks, the clerk who goes the extra mile without being asked, the assistant who accepts the unpopular assignment without complaining – these are the people, far too few in number, who deserve praise, recognition, and commendation …and often do not receive it.

8. Praise individually and in public.

Offering praise for a group effort is fine in its place, but everyone craves individual recognition. Praise has a more lasting effect when you name the people involved. And don’t forget the adage, ‘Praise in public, criticise in private’. People like receiving compliments from their boss in front of their colleagues or on other public occasions.

9. Show your appreciation in many ways for motivation.

In addition to complimentary asides and spontaneous acknowledgements, effective managers never forget the power of silent compliments, by using a variety of nonverbal gestures such as nods, smiles, and ‘pats on the back’. As well, a short written note or a mention in the staff newsletter or at a staff meeting can have a dramatic effect. And nothing pleases employees more than learning of a manager’s admiration of their work from other people: so occasionally express pride in your individual staff members to colleagues, the boss, or customers.

10. Don’t use praise to sugar-coat a reprimand.

‘You did good work on the Simpson project, Phil, but you came in over budget. You need to watch that.’

Sugar-coated reprimands are flawed: the employee won’t remember the praise – only the criticism. Never try to soften criticism by wrapping a few items of praise around it. Keep praise and criticism for separate occasions or your staff member will become confused and suspicious of all future praise.

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