How to make praise part of your workplace culture

When pay freezes become the norm, praising staff regularly for their efforts offers an effective way to motivate

Globe and Mail, Friday, October 21, 2010

The news hasn’t exactly helped raise employees’ spirits this week.

The Bank of Canada’s warning that the economic recovery remains sluggish came on top of projections by Buck Consultants that workers can only expect modest pay increases next year, if a stalled economy doesn’t bring back pay freezes.

Another survey by found that 35 per cent of Canadians didn’t get a raise all of this past year, and that year-end bonuses will still be scarce. Other recent surveys have warned that employees are less engaged in their work and that many are thinking about jumping to other employers.

It’s enough to make managers fear they have no alternative but to crack the whip to boost productivity. But there is something that can be as big a motivating factor as pay, perks or promotions and can make employees less likely to jump ship.

It’s praise.

To this, some might say, “For goodness sake! Are we all getting soft in the middle? Do we always need a steady drip of ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ to keep people feeling professionally worthy and validated?” Well, yes.

Without at least periodic positive feedback, employees may easily become unhappy, unmotivated and unproductive, because it’s difficult to know the value of your contribution without feedback. And what goes for managers is also true of co-workers. While praise is often thought of as a “top down” activity, it shouldn’t be: Everyone should feel free to praise their colleagues – and their managers, too.

The old expression is “You get what you pay for.” It’s the same with leaders and their staff. Managers who think that employees should feel that a paycheque and benefits are praise enough, will get exactly (and only) that – employees who are in it for the pay and no more.

If you want more, give more.

Here are some opportunities to make gratitude a regular part of your workplace culture:

Don’t hold back

Whether you are in a position of official leadership (but, especially if you are), when you see people doing things right, take the time to tell them so. It need only be a simple comment – “Good point!” “I’m glad you brought that up!” “I really appreciate that!” – or the old-fashioned and still much-appreciated “Thank you!” If one of your staff or a colleague is the real magic behind an idea, concept or success of a project, don’t steal their thunder. Give credit where the credit it is due.

Target praise

Target praise to specific observations, and be quick to respond. Timely praise, rather than delayed, often has more reward and satisfaction for the person. Specific praise, with comments about the details that inspired you to speak up, is more effective than merely saying “You’re doing terrific work” in a performance review.

Keep it appropriate

Make sure that the expression of praise isn’t out of proportion to the behaviour or action being praised.

Make it part of reviews

Performance reviews would be much less dreaded, and more likely to have employees follow through on suggested improvements, if managers were to accentuate the positive as much as they point out what needs to be improved.

Praise with purpose

Rather than making praise or giving thanks a formulaic and predictable gesture, such as at the end of team meetings, offer praise when it is unexpected – it’s a much more effective way to reinforce behaviour. Most everyone can spot phony praise a mile off. Behaviourists have found that praising periodically, on an irregular basis, is more effective than praise that comes so often it becomes expected.

Praise the praiser

Managers who overhear someone praise another employee can encourage the behaviour by following up with words of appreciation of their own. Saying how much you admired your colleague’s words, and the time they took, will inspire staff to make appreciation a natural part of the business day.

Have unstructured fun

Playing and having some lighthearted times together isn’t “goofing off” at the expense of the company owner or the customers – it’s intermittent refuelling to keep staff geared up for the hard work ahead. As piano teachers remind students, “Rests are part of the music.” Too many managers undervalue periodic workday “rests” for their staff. Sponsoring occasional staff events that incorporate play with serious work is another way to show employees that they, and their work, are appreciated.

Nina Spencer is a Toronto-based speaker, workshop facilitator and author of Getting Passion Out of Your Profession.

With files from reporter Wallace Immen

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