My professional library has many books, from many authorities, regarding how to lead, leading in change, crisis leadership, and more. Except that none of these books ever discusses the most critical tool in a leader’s toolbox, issuing honest, timely, and relevant praise.
I am one of those people who had to repeat a grade in school, and I am glad I did, for it provided an opportunity to meet Miss Murphy in the Governor Anderson Elementary School, Belfast, Maine. Miss Murphy has a smiling face, but you know there is a stick hiding nearby if needed. Miss Murphy laughed and smiled, and was the first principal I had witnessed behaving in this manner. Miss Murphy had laser eyes that sparkled with mirth and could freeze rushing water. Miss Murphy was a nun who went into the world to make the world better, especially for children.
As an energetic person, a person with problems with authority, and a guy, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the principal’s office in school. Please note, I am not bragging here, just recognizing an “uncomfortable truth.” Miss Murphy related a story to me, from her childhood, about how she had been called to be a student crossing guard, where she exercised her authority a little too much, and some kids cried, parents called the school, and complaints were issued. Her school principal called her into his office, she could clearly see on his desk the complaint forms, but her principal spent more than 10-minutes praising her leadership ability, her genuine care for smaller kids, and other observations where her good personality had been witnessed. Miss Murphy claimed she left his office forever changed.
The day Miss Murphy related this story to me, she praised me. I knew that she knew, I had heckled a teacher mercilessly in an unwarranted manner. I knew that she knew, I had committed several other offenses needing her judgment and punishment. Yet, she provided honest praise, where she had observed quietly, and she concluded this visit to her office with the words, “From these observations, I know there is good inside you.” I can honestly say, this was the worst chewing out I ever had in a school principal’s office. I left her office that day, feeling small and insignificant like never before, but also feeling like a million bucks and dedicated to being caught more often doing good. More to the point, I had discovered what a leader is and made a friend that I wanted, desired, and hoped I could receive more praise from.
To the leaders in business, I would make the plea, “Catch your people doing good.” Catch them regularly, praise them honestly, issue the praise promptly, and you will shortly see new behaviors, attitudes, and cultures in your workplace. I have published this plea previously and been asked some questions, below are the questions and some examples to get started.
- Isn’t all praise honest?
- No, all praise is not honest. A pernicious lie has been passed around that criticism can be constructive; this fallacy needs squashed forever and cast upon the bad ideas from history. You cannot build people by criticizing them. There is never anything “constructive” in criticism!
- Honest praise is precisely that, honest and sincere. You mean what you say, and say what you mean. Hence, when you feel thank you is insufficient, leave a note in a distinctive color praising the efforts observed.
- For example, I witnessed a leader who used praise to help ease the pain of failure. A subordinate had worked hard to make a satisfy a customer and fix a problem caused by the company. The customer refused the apology and swore revenge, making the efforts of this customer agent useless. The leader recognized the efforts and issued praise for trying, for being a generally successful customer advocate, and for going above and beyond. The customer agent never realized someone beyond their team leader had observed their efforts, and the employee broke down in tears of gratitude for the honest praise issued. I personally witnessed renewed dedication from this employee, and the impetus for change was the note of praise.
- Timely praise; why does praise need to be timely?
- Timely praise is all about recognizing and issuing praise while the events are still fresh, and when the praise issued has a real chance at affecting an individual’s future efforts. Timely is all about being engaged in that exact moment and stopping to recognize, through praise, the efforts, trials, and experiences of others.
- I worked at a company for three years, in what became my last quarter, I was issued praise for actions taken during my first month on the job. Honestly, that praise was useless to me, and while I didn’t fully spurn the efforts at recognition, I certainly was not swayed, inspired, or even influenced by the praise issued. However, other incidents where praise was issued timelier has been more influential; thus, the need for timely praise.
- The employee mentioned above, the effort expended occupied time Monday through the disastrous conclusion on Thursday. The employee came in to find praise and recognition on Friday Morning. Timely, honest appreciation, proved to be what was needed and changed a life.
- Why should praise be offered regularly?
- Let’s be honest, issuing praise adds work to your day. You have to make observations, then you have to issue praise, and this is a generally thankless effort; especially when you have to “Wash, Rinse, and Repeat” countless times to visualize a return on your time and effort investment. I guarantee this effort will not last, no changes will be realized, and this attitude will be observed to cause more problems, not less.
- Let’s be honest, issuing praise is fun. Witnessing a person who has been caught doing good provides excitement to replicate. Catching a person doing good provides me a pleasure valve release from the stress of meetings, monthly and quarterly reports, and the hassles of leading an organization. Issuing praise allows me to get out of my office, make human contact, and enjoy the people side of my job. I guarantee this effort will last, that deep life-altering impact will be felt by those working for this leader, and employee problems will reduce to the lowest common denominator.
- Regular praise issuance means you are fully committed to giving praise, and this effort will be reciprocated in a manner unexpected. Like the contagious smile, issuing honest, timely, regular praise, will catch fire and the contagion will spread and permeate throughout the office like wildfire. Your customers will even catch the disease of issuing praise.
- Isn’t issuing praise just “puffery” or building snowflakes?
- No! A thousand times; NO! Honest praise, timely issued, and regularly provided is not “puffery,” but a direct extension of how you feel towards another person. A child brings their mother a dandelion. Does the mother squash the flower as just messy, or takes the flower and doesn’t issue thanks to the child; no. Why should workplace praise and gratitude be any different than the child and their mother?
- Issuing praise and showing gratitude is treating others how you prefer to be treated. Do you like seeing your efforts recognized; then recognize others. Do you like being provided expressions of gratitude; then pass out gratitude. People take cues from their leaders’ actions more than their words; issuing praise and recognition is an action with monumental power.
- Myron Tribus asked a question about the purpose of a business essentially asking, “Is the purpose of your business to be a cash spigot or to improve the world?” If cash spigot, you would never issue praise or gratitude, and the money is the only focus. In this scenario, expect high employee churn, higher employee stress, and poor employee morale. If the purpose is to build the world, why not start by building the internal customer? Do you issue thank you’s to your customers; why not issue gratitude first to your internal customer, the employee?
- Do adults, and working professionals really need all this praise?
- Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Yes; working professionals do need to be praised. However, because they are adults, false praise, criticism couched as praise, and fake praise is easily detected, and the resulting consequences are terrible to witness.
- While serving in the US Navy, I experienced a Chief Engineering Officer who faked praise, criticized through praise thinking he was constructive, and his efforts turned the Engineering Department’s morale from high to depressing in less than seven days. The Engineering Department went from winning awards and recognition to absolute failure in inspections, drills, and daily activities in less than two-weeks. The recovery of the Engineering Department’s morale never occurred in the remaining two-years I had in my US Navy contract and featured a big reason why I left the US Navy.
- Thus, to reiterate; YES! Yes, adults need honest, timely, and regular praise. Yes, praise is a tool that can be wielded to effect significant positive change or can be wielded to decimate and destroy. Choose wisely!
© 2019 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved
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