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Giving Thanks: The Fine Art of Giving Employees Praise

Telling your direct reports when they’re doing great is an important part of a manager’s job – the question is, are you giving praise correctly?

With American Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s a time to reflect on what we’re most thankful for, and if you’re a manager of people, you might be thinking about how busy the past year has been and just how awesome your team really is. But before you start doling out praise willy-nilly, let’s pause for a second – are you giving praise correctly? 

The concept of properly giving praise began to come to my attention a few years back when I was sitting in a boardroom with the entire staff complement after a major project launch. The team leader was going around the room thanking people for their specific contributions and when he got to the members of my team, he said something to the effect of, “And thanks to the comms team for always making all our projects look so great!” … What? I glanced at my team and they all smiled politely but I could see the disappointment on their faces as they began to realize that the team leader literally had no idea what they did, or how massive their contributions were to the overall success of the project. Ugh. 

So, here’s the truth: As a manager it is your job to give your employees feedback – and feedback does not simply mean diplomatically telling people where they can improve during annual performance reviews. Kim Scott says it best:

“Feedback (praise and criticism) is the atomic building block of management. To be a great boss you have to give frequent feedback. Praise is the best way of letting people know what to do more of. Criticism lets them know what to do less of.”

-Kim Scott, Radical Candour

How important is praise you might ask? Well, let’s look at some facts and you can decide for yourself. 

New Gallup poll data finds that 74% of employees in the U.S. are actively disengaged at work, up from 69% in 2019. But despite 2021 being termed the era of the “Great Resignation,” Gallup data indicate that the rate of disengagement and people leaving companies is not an industry, role or pay issue. Instead, Gallup says this:

“Attributing today’s record-high quit rate to pay issues overlooks the bigger picture of the workplace. The pandemic changed the way people work and how they view work. Many are reflecting on what a quality job feels like, and nearly half are willing to quit to find one. Reversing the tide in an organization requires managers who care, who engage, and who give workers a sense of purpose, inspiration and motivation to perform. Such managers give people reason to stay.”

And there you have it folks! It’s up to us – the managers – to help keep the best people inside our companies by fully engaging with employees, showing we care personally, and motivating workers by giving clear direction – which includes properly giving praise. 

Feedback is a gift.

A healthy and strong culture starts with feedback. Share real-time feedback on your team’s work with a tool like Fellow.

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5 tips for praising employees

1 Be sincere and specific

Unlike the team leader in the story above, when giving praise to a team member it is important to be both sincere and specific about the contribution of the employee. Spend some time thinking about what the employee did well. If you’re unsure about their nitty-gritty specific contribution, talk to your employees more about what they believe is going well on the project and who is doing what – stay tuned in. 

2 Let the praise stand alone

Many of us early in our management careers were taught the “feedback sandwich” approach to giving employees praise and criticism – praise first, criticism next, conclude with more praise. My advice is simple on this: Don’t do it. If you are seeking to praise an employee, then let the praise stand alone. It’s not necessary to also add in what they could have done better. The reverse is also true for criticism by the way – criticize candidly and don’t sugar-coat the criticism with token praise.    

3 Understand how the employee likes to be praised

There is a lot of advice out there that suggests that criticism should always be given in private and praise should always be given in public – and I have to say, I don’t totally agree with the praise part of that statement. I myself am quite introverted and the thought of getting very public praise and then having to say thank you or give any kind of follow-up remarks on the spot with everyone watching and zero preparation is terrifying. 

I’m a huge, huge proponent of understanding your team members on a personal level, which includes understanding whether or not they would truly appreciate being showered with praise in front of the entire company or whether they would prefer a hand-delivered thank you card from the big-boss herself, for example. Public praise is not for everyone, so make best efforts to truly understand your team members and how they prefer to be thanked. 

4 Reinforce the praise

The entire point of sincere and specific praise is to motivate your employee and encourage more of that specific behaviour. As such, once you give praise, it’s important to find ways to reinforce that praise and encourage the same behaviour again and again while also allowing the employee to grow and develop. 

Here’s an example of how this could work in practice: Let’s say your employee Natalie did a fabulous job with a product pitch to your prospective client. You praised her for the clear, conciseness of her slide deck, and you told her that you appreciated that she was prepared with facts and figures for the Q&A afterward. An excellent way to reinforce this behaviour and signal that you want more of it on your team is to ask Natalie to help more junior employees prepare for presentations, reminding her about the items at which she excelled. 

5 Encourage peer-to-peer praise

Praise does not always need to come from a boss to an employee, and in fact, peer-to-peer praise can help build a strong workplace culture and increase employee motivation and engagement. There are all kinds of case studies that show the benefits of formal peer-to-peer recognition programs, but if your company isn’t ready for that just yet, try implementing something simple like sharing “wins” or “bright spots” during team meetings where employees share a win of a team member in addition to a win of their own.  

Don’t underestimate the power of saying “thank you”.

At the end of the day, while there are many ways to give praise and certainly proper ways to dole it out, managers should also never underestimate the power of simply saying “thank you.” 

To this day, past employees tell me how much they appreciated the little post-its or cards I used to leave on their desks after a big team accomplishment. Giving praise and saying thanks is very important but it also doesn’t need to be complicated. A little bit of specific and sincere praise does absolutely go a very long way. 

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