Essays on Excellence

Singing the Praises of Praises

If managers want to create a workplace environment where people thrive, tap into the benefits of praise.

April 10, 2014

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Ask most people how they know they are doing a good job at work and they’ll often say, “Because no one has yelled at me lately.”

Unfortunately, many leaders and managers seem to think the primary value they bring to the organization is finding fault and pointing out errors. But focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive comes at a price. Gallup Inc. research has concluded that a lack of recognition or praise for doing good work is responsible for a 10 to 20 percent difference in revenue and productivity. What’s more, employees who report that they’re not adequately recognized at work are three times more likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.

If managers want to create an environment where people thrive, they need to look at the benefits of praise. It costs nothing and pays big dividends to both giver and receiver.

In a Harvard Business Reviewblog post published March 15, 2013, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman point to research conducted by Emily Heaphy, formerly of the University of Michigan Business School, and consultant Marcial Losada published in 2004 in American Behavioral Scientist. Heaphy and Losada examined the effectiveness of 60 leadership teams. Effectiveness was measured according to several criteria, including feedback ratings of the team members.

The factor that made the greatest difference between the most successful and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative ones. Top-performing teams gave each other more than five positive comments for every criticism, while the lowest-performing teams gave each other three negative comments for every positive one.

Research by John Gottman, a co-founder of The Gottman Institute who has studied relationships for more than 40 years, also found the “magic ratio” of interactions to be 5 to 1. When there are five times as many positive interactions as negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.

The reason why so many additional positive comments are needed for each negative one is important: People are conditioned emotionally to absorb the negative more deeply than the positive.

Why Praise Is Important

A leader who is known for following through with encouragement and praise can expect to see better results than the one who has a reputation for walking away after assigning a task. Setting a goal starts the behavior, but what happens next influences actual performance. People love to be caught doing things right. It isn’t necessary to wait for the goal to be reached to praise behavior. Offering timely and specific praise as progress is made toward the goal will improve performance at every stage.

As an example, managers who remember to say “thank you” may find that people on the receiving end of gratitude are motivated to work harder. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania divided university fundraising volunteers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told them she was grateful for their efforts. The volunteers who had heard the director’s message of gratitude made 50 percent more fundraising calls than those who had not.

TRUE Praise

Timely: Praisings must be immediate and specific. Tell people exactly what they did right as soon as possible. For example, “You submitted your report on time Friday, and it was well-written. I was able to present your data at the meeting.” Statements like “Keep up the good work” are less sincere and not specific enough to be effective.

Responsive: Find out how people want to be praised. If someone doesn’t like to be praised in front of peers, then the praising should be delivered privately. The point is to be aware of the needs of the people receiving the praise so it is meaningful to them.

Unconditional: Deliver praise without evaluation or strings attached. Praise should not be given with something expected in return. It should be given freely when deserved. Praising approximately right behaviors along the way makes the journey to excellent performance more enjoyable for everyone.

Enthusiastic: Give sincere and well-intentioned praise. Speak from the heart and tell people how you feel about what they did. For example, “I was so proud after hearing your financial report presentation. I want you to know how good I feel about having you on our team.”

Ken Blanchard, Vicki Stanford and David Witt

If praise is such a valuable tool, why isn’t it more common? In many cases, it can be traced back to a performance review system that forces managers to grade employees based on a normal distribution curve. Leaders are forced to rate some performers low, and leaders who tend to rate everyone high are seen as soft. But this way of measuring performance is limiting and unreasonable, as high-performing and highly engaged companies can attest.

At San Diego-based WD-40 Co., CEO Garry Ridge believes that managers and employees should work together as teammates, with both sharing accountability for the employees’ performance. “When people know you are there for them, they are going to be there for you,” Ridge said. “You have to care about your people. You need to be candid with them. You need to hold them accountable, and you have to expect them to be responsible. But you can’t disconnect those things. You have to have all four.”

Colleen Barrett also practices a high-expectation, high-support approach. During her tenure as president of Southwest Airlines Co. from 2001 through 2008, Barrett was known for being compassionate but also able to speak plainly with people when they were out of line. Employees knew that Barrett, now president emeritus, had their best interests at heart and that she cared deeply about them. She demonstrated this care in many ways, which included sending thousands of handwritten notes to Southwest employees each year.

Ridge and Barrett agree that when leaders take the time to catch people doing things right, it gives them permission to use candor in redirecting performance when necessary. When you show someone you care, it’s like making a deposit in an emotional bank account. This is important when you need to make a withdrawal by giving negative feedback.

“If you don’t have enough emotional deposits, when you have that tough conversation, it’s going to feel like an attack and it’s going to hurt,” Ridge said. “But if you have enough deposits, the employee will already know that you mean them no harm and instead recognize that you’re trying to help them.”

The best managers go out of their way to stay on top of what’s happening with their people so they can be informed and specific when they offer praise. When a manager receives a negative or lukewarm response to praise, it’s usually because the praise was seen by the employee as something meaningless that the manager was checking off a list.

One leader we knew would go around every year at holiday time and thank everyone for their hard work. It was a kind of ritual that he practiced only at the end of the year. He got sick one year and another person put a bag over his head with a picture of the manager on it and walked around offering the same greetings: “Good to see you. Thanks for your efforts.” Everyone laughed because it highlighted just how hollow the leader’s attempt at praise was. Praising should be specific, timely, based on current performance and personalized to the receiver.

Management by Walking Around

Former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Chief Operating Officer Don Soderquist, known as the “keeper of the culture” during his tenure, made sure to check in at local Wal-Marts while he was traveling. Soderquist would put on his name tag, walk into the store and ask the manager to take him on a “praising tour.” He wanted to see all the good things that were occurring and meet the employees who were making a difference. Managers appreciated the opportunity to point out specific people and their accomplishments.

After the time spent catching people doing things right, Soderquist would ask the managers if they had any concerns that corporate headquarters might help with. The managers were sometimes surprised that he wanted to hear about their concerns, but because he had started off focusing on the positive, they were usually comfortable sharing feedback about improvements.

The latest research into happiness and well-being is finding that the act of expressing gratitude is a major contributor to overall happiness. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people. Each was given a weekly control assignment of writing about early memories. When their assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for a kindness, participants exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. The impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with the benefits lasting up to a month.

In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want,” the author states that people who express gratitude are likely to be happier, more hopeful and energetic, and to feel positive emotions more often. They also tend to be more spiritual or religious and more forgiving, empathetic and helpful while being less depressed, envious and neurotic.

Create a Culture of Praise

If building praise into your organizational or departmental culture is a goal, begin by teaching employees about the power of positive praise and tell them you want to put it into practice. Let them know you’ll be looking for good examples of people doing things right — and that when you see or hear about them, you’ll share them. Then encourage your people to do the same with their peers or direct reports, sharing specific information about the projects, performance and people involved.

William James, the famed nineteenth-century philosopher and psychologist, wrote, “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” When you praise people, be sure to let them know how you feel about the great job they are doing. The reward of praise is that much sweeter when it’s specific and personal.

A little encouragement goes a long way. Who can you appreciate? Who can you serve in that way? Who can you help to blossom? Remember: When you lift up others, you help yourself as well.

Ken Blanchard is co-founder and chief spiritual officer, and Vicki Stanford and David Witt are directors at The Ken Blanchard Cos., a training and development consultancy. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.