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Bad praise worse than none at all

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Monday, October 03, 2011

By Tom Cox

I've talked before about praise (here, here, and here). So it's natural I'd do a radio program on Effective Praise.

Effective praise is one of those leadership skills that seems to come in only two varieties -- there's the natural and highly effective praise of the "born leader" -- and then there's the unnatural and highly ineffective praise of people like, well, me before I learned how.

I used to be very bad at delivering effective praise. My ineffective praise was usually artificial, vague and insincere. I had read many times that a leader ought to praise people, and as a follower I had experienced positive and effective praise from leaders that I liked, and yet none of that added up to any sort of direction, skill or ability.

After trying it out a few times, and doing it poorly, I gave up. I would later learn that giving up was probably not the worst thing I could have done -- a Harvard Business Review article reveals that ineffective praise can be more harmful to performance than no praise at all.

Part of the reason I was so bad was, that my motivation was to manipulate. I was goal oriented, and I was trying to "fix" the behavior of a subordinate. Or, in some cases, I was trying to use praise as a bribe -- again, in a manipulative way to try to boost performance. Unsurprisingly, that failed.

Effective praise has to be from the heart. It has to be authentic, honest, and connected both to true feelings on my part and actual, real-world behaviors on the other person's part.

My first guest covered this need for authenticity. Reut Schwartz-Hebron of the KindExcellence Institute is a former consultant to the Israeli military and now an HR director as well as an author (of three books including Outswim the Sharks: How to Quadruple Your Team's Productivity with Kindness), speaker and consultant.

Reut (pronounced "Ray-Oot") spoke very passionately about the importance of -- the indispensable nature of -- authenticity. As with so many other things, with effective praise, you have to say what you mean, and mean what you say.

And that means that the leader has to be introspective. I can tell you that I appreciate you, truthfully, only if I actually appreciate you. And I can actually appreciate you only by noticing you, and noticing my own feelings of appreciation. That is why the Type A personality struggles with effective praise -- the Type A manager is so focused on tasks and execution that she does not notice her own feelings, making it impossible for her to provide an honest account of them.

We are going to see this theme of introspection again and again.

Larry Dennis of Turbo Leadership Systems, author of many books including Empowering Leadership, was even more specific about why praise is vital and how you can overcome your own internal resistance to giving it.

Across thousands of managers and hundreds of workshops, Larry has brainstormed the reasons why we don't give praise, and again and again people say "I'm afraid they won't believe me" or "I'm afraid they'll reject it" or "I'm afraid I won't do a good job" -- I'm afraid, I'm afraid, I'm afraid.

Take a moment and think back at the last time you received praise, or a compliment. It felt good, didn't it? And think back to the last time you gave effective praise -- that felt good, too, didn't it?

What's missing for us as leaders are two things - courage and confidence. The way to get better is to simply start practicing.

Larry laid out a four step process -- of paying Attention to our people (which requires mindfulness or awareness, as well as getting away from our desks and being out among the folks), and you cannot pay honest Attention if you lack a genuine interest in other people. Second is to show Approval of a job well done. Third, when they truly perform at a higher level, show some Appreciation. Fourth and finally, look for the quality (or character trait) that drove the behavior and call positive attention to it, with the behavior as evidence of the quality -- for example, you took the Initiative (a character trait) to provide me this extra data (behavior). It's nearly impossible to reject praise that is rooted in evidence like that.

I won't spoil the rest of the program -- suffice it to say that it is well worth listening to.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.

 
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