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The What, Why, and How of Giving Praise

May 3, 2018

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. The 'small thing' of employee recognition, however, can have an enormous impact both on employees as individuals, and on the culture of the company at large.

The Benefits of Praise

There’s this old school idea that a company doesn’t need to show staff appreciation or express gratitude 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 assistant professor Julia Lee, both of University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, this mentality is “surprisingly common,” but “unenlightened,” and often results in high employee turnover. Any human resources pro will tell you, as important as pay is (and we shouldn’t discount that), it doesn’t equal employee engagement, so it's really necessary to go the extra mile and show employee appreciation. Moreover, non-monetary benefits like a culture of recognition can create about half the employee engagement boost of a salary change, but is 95% less expensive. Praising good work through an employee recognition program helps the company save money through increased employee retention and higher employee motivation — meaning an engaged workforce that is not only willing, but eager to work harder to achieve company goals.

What Praise Looks Like

First and foremost, treating employee recognition like a chore or giving empty praise isn’t going to be fun for anyone involved — nor will that positively impact company culture. 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 should be simple: show appreciation for excellent employee performance, and be genuine.

It’s also important that you craft a recognition plan so that your employee recognition program makes staff appreciation personal. Everyone can remember a time when, after working hard, they’ve been disappointed in a lack of a proportional reaction or appreciation program. Novak also provides an anecdote regarding his oncologist, whose career included an impressive 40 years of service for an institution. When Novak remarked that they must be so thankful to have had her expertise for so long, she showed him the service award she was given for her 40th work anniversary: a keychain. Receiving such a little thing as a recognition award — one that's less exciting than a credit card sign-up incentive (or even a gift card) — for decades of great work would clearly be demoralizing; Novak calls it a “trivial attempt at recognition” that misses the mark, noting that such a letdown could negatively impact employee morale rather than show employee appreciation.

The Harvard Business Review article, “Praise Someone the Way They Want to be Praised,” asserts that while some employees will enjoy public recognition for good work, others will be more appreciative of knowing that a customer provided positive feedback, and others still will be more satisfied by a technical award, or being granted the title of "employee of the month." Simply ask staff members how they like to be recognized in order to align your formal recognition with the type of positive feedback they'll be most comfortable with and give them effective praise. The most powerful praise can (and should) be action as well as words. If an employee does well on a project, you can give them a shoutout at the company meeting, but you also can (and should) give them a follow-up task, assign them to lead next project, or even have them train or mentor a new employee.

Who Can Give Praise?

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

There are some clear benefits to peer recognition: “it [can] feel less like a performance review, and more like an organic expression of gratitude,” writes Shawn Achor for Harvard Business Review. Large companies benefit from recognition programs as much as small ones: when using a peer recognition system, JetBlue found that for every 10% increase in people reporting being recognized, retention increased by 3%, while engagement grew by 2%.

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. You must create a culture of public recognition to show that your company values a positive work environment, and the employee satisfaction that comes with it.

Here are some good examples of when (and why) to show employee appreciation:

  • Recognize excellence: When a great employee does an exceptional job and the company benefits overall, recognition brings attention to the work that person has done to help achieve company goals. In turn, this further incentivizes staff members — both seasoned and new hires alike — to strive for the company.
  • Recognize under-the-radar efforts: Everyone does work that isn’t always noticed, but that benefits the entire team and makes everyone’s lives easier. Whether it’s an assistant’s prowess in last-minute rescheduling, or an office manager’s ability to ensure the office canteen never runs out of coffee and snacks, staff recognition for little things that have a big impact helps make that “invisible” work more obvious.
  • Strengthen team bonds: When a coworker helps out another coworker by going the extra mile and it’s recognized, it builds a company culture in which collaboration is appreciated, and encourages such specific behavior — which has a positive impact on the entire company.

Three potential peer recognition scripts:

  • Recognize excellence: “Your presentation at the staff meeting really opened my eyes into the way your team’s project will tie into the company goals at large, and I found it both informative and motivating — great work!”
  • Recognize under-the-radar efforts: “Your dedication to more thankless tasks like keeping the canteen well stocked with both caffeinated and non-caffeinated coffees and teas has a huge positive impact on our work environment and I just want you to know that I truly appreciate your hard work in being so on top of organization and ordering.”
  • Strengthen team bonds: “Thank you for going the extra mile to be a sounding board for me in preparing my proposal on Friday afternoon! It really made a difference in the end product. I’m happy we're coworkers!”

Giving Public Praise

You might be pondering employee recognition ideas, and wondering about when and where to give positive feedback. Again, it’s important to be personal. Public recognition during a company meeting for a shyer employee might not be the right call, while pulling aside a more extroverted team member to praise their good work might be less impactful than some sort of recognition award.

Overall, though, showing employee appreciation and fostering peer recognition can be a wonderful boon because it creates a company culture of giving praise and positive feedback. This will make giving praise one of the core values of the company, boost intrinsic motivation among staff while resulting in lower turnover, and ultimately make for a successful employee recognition program.

When you express gratitude through effective employee recognition and let staff members know you care about personal goals and their wellbeing, they’ll strive to give you amazing work. Employee appreciation makes for happier and more dedicated employees who are willing to stick with you through a company’s ebbs and flows.

One way to easily show employee appreciation is by utilizing communication technology as recognition tools: email, an internal messaging services such as Slack, the company blog, a performance management system such as Lattice, and even (if it makes sense for your company) in more public social media channels such as Twitter can all be used to give praise.

By providing specific, thoughtful employee recognition tailored to each individual's preferences, you’re showing that their hard work isn’t taken for granted — and increasing the likelihood that they’ll keep it up.