By Irv Rubin, Ph.D., and Matt Stone, J.D.
Recognition is one of the most powerful development and morale-building tools. Most people will likely nod in agreement with this statement, yet the truth is that far too few managers are using recognition as effectively as they could to lead their teams. The reasons are many. Recognition is a form of feedback, and feedback is feared. For many, delivering any kind of feedback, whether critical or positive, can invoke fear and anxiety. It feels personal, so it can trigger a sense of vulnerability, or be perceived as threatening or too “soft” for some. And of course there is the problem of everyone being so busy. It takes energy and effort to praise well, so it is often a fleeting thought not acted upon, or done in an drive-by, ineffective way.
Great leaders and managers, though, become very mindful of and skilled at exchanging feedback because they know that feedback, including regular recognition, is the most fundamental and essential learning, development, and relationship-building tool.
There are three critical points to using recognition feedback to develop high-performing engaged teams: (1) Do it, and do it regularly, (2) be sincere and specific, and (3) make it the main point of the discussion, not a softener or lead-in for criticism.
1. Do It … Regularly
Neuroscience is proving what we all know intuitively from our childhood: We learn and develop best when we are encouraged along the way. If all we hear is criticism, our brains are wired to defend and protect from the threat. Although better at hiding their true thoughts and feelings, adults in the workplace have brains with fundamentally the same learning and defense mechanisms as children.
In addition to remembering to recognize and praise, it is important to do it regularly. Don’t miss an opportunity to give praise contemporaneous with or soon after the praise-worthy conduct. This will help embed the good behavior and hard-wire it in the mind of the recipient. One highly successful CEO we worked with used to discipline her managers if their direct reports received feedback about a matter for the first time during an annual performance review. Her point was that waiting until a once-a-year appointment to give feedback is highly inefficient and ineffective as a method of performance management and employee retention. Waiting too long can diminish the positive impact of the praise, and even cause resentment.
In summary, make it a priority to stop and give praise and recognition, and do it as regularly as is warranted. And remember that the best way to ensure continued quality behavior is to recognize it.
2. Be Sincere and Specific
Most people we encounter can spot a phony compliment a mile away. Perhaps that is because we have all been on both ends of it. Can you remember ever saying “Great Job!” to someone when your sense of obligation trumped the truth? We all know about toxic environments, but many organizational cultures suffer from being overly-cordial environments where people feel obligated to pretend to be respectful and happy. The thing that toxic and overly-cordial cultures share in common is that people do not feel psychologically safe enough to exchange honest feedback. And that stifles healthy relationships and development, which is the lifeblood of performance and engagement.
It is absolutely critical to be sincere about the praise so that a person feels safe to accept it as truth rather than simply dismiss it. The more specific the praise, the more sincere it feels and the more likely the recipient is to continue to exhibit the behavior that earned the praise. A vague statement like “nice work” is akin to junk food. It feels good in the moment, but lacks the nutrients needed for healthy development. So next time, try something like:
Nice work! I really appreciate how organized your presentation was. By putting the financial summary first, it put the strategic plan you covered in better context. Can you share this with the executive team so they can prepare better for next month’s Board meeting?
Finally, the more honest and specific the praise, the more trust is built. That trust level will come in handy when it is time to deliver constructive criticism.
3. Make It the Main Dish, Not an Appetizer
One of the most commonly used and insidious feedback techniques is bookending constructive criticism with praise. This should be avoided at all costs. Once a criticism entrée is served up with a gratuitous appetizer of praise, the ability to effectively and earnestly deliver praise in the future will be seriously hampered if not destroyed. If the praise recipient learns to expect criticism after praise, they will forever associate praise with criticism. However sincere or substantive the praise point, most people will simply be waiting to hear the criticism and won’t likely even remember the praise. But they sure will remember the criticism. That is how our brains work. So the better way is to separate praise exchanges from constructive criticism conversations. And if the praise must be discussed in the same conversation with criticism, provide advanced notice that there will be specific points of praise and criticism. Start with the criticism so that there is a chance the person is feeling relieved and relaxed when hearing the praise.
While praise and recognition definitely feel good and can increase personal goodwill, leaders would be wise to remember that the primary reason for using praise is to encourage winning behavior that will result in better individual and team performance. And if most of the team members are developing, feeling encouraged, and performing well, there is a very good chance that the engagement survey will reflect the same.
Oh, and did we mention that giving praise and recognition will also make you happier?