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The What, Why, and How of Giving Praise

Praising employees for their successes may seem like a ‘little’ thing: good to do sometimes, sure, but not that important, and often more of an afterthought. That small thing, however, can have an enormous impact both on employees as individuals, and on the culture of the company at large.

1. The benefits of building a culture of praise

2. What does praise look like?

3. Anyone can give praise

4. When and how to give praise

5. Giving praise publicly

The benefits of building a culture of praise

There’s this idea that a company doesn’t need to be proactive in keeping its employees happy because “that’s what their paycheck is for.” But according to “The Benefits of Saying Nice Things About Your Colleagues” by Professor Jane E. Dutton and assisant professor Julia Lee, both of University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, this mentality is “surprisingly common,” but “unenlightened.” As important as pay is (and we shouldn’t discount that), it doesn’t equal engagement. Moreover, recognition can create about half the engagement boost of a salary change, but is 95% less expensive. Praise helps the company save money through increased retention and an engaged workforce that is eager to work for productively.

What does praise look like?

First and foremost, treating employee recognition like a chore isn’t going to be fun for anyone involved. In the Harvard Business Review article, “Recognizing Employees Is The Simplest Way to Improve Morale,” David Novak gets right to the point: “Recognition isn’t just about implementing employee programs to check them off a list; it’s about bringing out the best in people and improving your company’s bottom line.”

It’s also important to make praise personal. Everyone can remember a time when, after making an effort and working hard, they’ve been disappointed in a lack of proportional reaction. Novak also provides an anecdote regarding his oncologist, who has had an impressive, 40-year career of service for an institution. When Novak remarked that they must be so thankful to have had her expertise for so many years, she showed him the gift she was given for her 40th anniversary: a keychain. A gift less exciting than a credit card sign-up incentive for decades of work would clearly be demoralizing; Novak calls it a “trivial attempt at recognition” that misses the mark, noting that it’s more of a letdown than an inspiration.

HBR’s “Praise Someone the Way They Want to be Praised” asserts that while some employees will enjoy public praise, others will be more appreciative of knowing that a customer provided positive feedback, and others still will be more satisfied by a technical award. If you don’t know what the employee likes, simply ask. DeMaio also notes that praise can (and should) be action as well as words. If an employee does well on a project, you can give them follow-up task, assign them to lead next project, or even have them train or mentor someone new.

Anyone can give praise

Praise doesn’t need to flow only from manager to employee -- peer to peer praise is also imperative to building a culture of praise.

When peers express praise for one another, “it [can] feel less like a performance review, and more like an organic expression of gratitude,” writes Shawn Achor for Harvard Business Review. When using a peer-to-peer feedback recognition system, JetBlue found that for every 10% increase in people reporting being recognized, retention increased by 3%, while engagement grew by 2%.

When and how to give praise

Now that the benefit of praise is clear, it must be noted: praise doesn’t mean showering employees and coworkers with empty flattery, nor is it simply being polite.

Three examples of when (and why) to give praise:

Three potential public praise scripts:

Giving praise publicly

You might also be wondering about when and where to give praise. Again, it’s important to be personal about your praise -- loudly announcing during a company wide meeting how well a shyer employee did well on something might not be the right call, while pulling aside a more extroverted employee to give them praise might be less impactful.

But giving praise publicly can be a huge boon to a company because it creates a culture of giving praise and feedback in the company culture. This will make giving praise -- among all employees, not just managers -- easier, more rewarding, and, best of all, commonplace. The latter factor will make your employees feel like they’re in a place that cares about their doing well and their wellbeing -- meaning they’ll prioritize both, making for happier, healthier employees who are more willing to stick with you through a company’s ebbs and flows.

One way to easily give public praise is through communication technology such as email, internal messaging services such as Slack, the company blog, an internal performance management system such as Lattice, and even (if it makes sense for your company) in more public social media channels such as Twitter.

By providing staff with specific, thoughtful praise tailored to their preferences, you’re showing that their hard work isn’t taken for granted— and increasing the likelihood that they’ll keep it up.