Praise can be a powerful motivational tool – Matt Chittock looks at how to get it right

People management fads may come and go, but the experts agree there’s one motivational technique that never loses its potency: praise.
Just ask the Gallup Organisation, who commissioned a worldwide survey of more than four million employees on the subject. They concluded that staff who received regular praise in the office are more productive, engaged and loyal to their organisation then those who don’t.
“Praise is extremely motivating,” confirms business coach Jo James. “I think that employees very often don’t get praised enough – and it’s so empowering when it’s done properly, and at the right time.”

And there lies the rub. There’s more to praise than a murmured ‘cheers’ for staff who have stayed late to work on a big project. In fact, when managers get praise ‘right’ it’s extremely powerful (and a much cheaper ‘thank you’ than a pay-rise or putting the company credit card behind the bar on a team night out). However, get it ‘wrong’ and it can quickly lose its power, or might even back-fire altogether.  Which is why it pays to think about how, why and when you praise.

The perils of over-praising

Some managers, on hearing that praise is positive, get in the habit of praising everything that staff do. And blanket praise feels great, for a bit, yet as Anna Golawski from Stratus Coaching points out, if you’re told everything you do is fantastic all the time, it quickly loses its potency.

“Even with the best intentions, praise can be over-used,” she says. “People aren’t stupid, and will quickly become blasé when they realise that praise isn’t being aligned with the goals the organisation wants to achieve. So, instead of just praising generally, be specific about the things someone did well. Rather than just saying ‘That’s a great report!’ specifically praise the things that made it great, whether it’s the structure, the way that sections are laid out, or something else.”

James adds that being specific with praise also doubles as a handy expectation-setting tool. By clearly praising what the team member has achieved you’re setting the bar for others to do the same.

“It helps the rest of the team understand exactly what the employee has done to win that client, or enhance that piece of work,” she says. “They’re more likely to think ‘OK, so that’s what’s expected of me too’ – and then go and do it.”

Find the right format

Some employees (especially the extroverts) love to be praised on a good job in front of the whole team. Meanwhile, quieter types might hate the idea of being in the spotlight and prefer a personal ‘well done’ as part of an appraisal or one-to-one.

As Golawski says, a skilful manager knows what format for praise would suit each individual employee. “It does partly depend on the person – and while some think its great to be praised in front of the whole team, others just prefer a simple email,” she says.

And, while it’s good to get the format right, remember that if what the employee has done deserves to become best practice, making it public (in a way appropriate to the employee) is also key. This could be through a group email if staff prefer to shun the spotlight.

Praise even when things go wrong

Golawski says that to support a positive work culture the ratio of praise, and ‘positive feedback’, to criticism in an office should be 5:1. While things are going well this can be easy. But what happens when something goes wrong? “Even if a team didn’t achieve what they wanted to, it’s good to praise their efforts,” she says. “Sometimes things don’t go right at work, but people will be able to build up resilience if they get praise for what went right. Then they’re much more likely to want to try again next time.” This kind of feedback helps create behavourial expectations for a team, so they understand that failure is treated realistically, but positively, within the wider company.

Ring-fence praise

To be effective, praise needs to stand alone. So avoid trying to mix praise with constructive criticism, or as leverage to ask for something else. After all, it’s often human nature to ignore the praise altogether and fixate on the negative. “It’s vital to keep praise ‘clean’ and separate from everything else,” says Golawski. “Otherwise it can undermine even the best intentions.”