I recently wrote a post about negative feedback, and how useful it was to learn ways in which you could improve. By itself, of course, constant negative feedback would be incredibly depressing. We also need to know when we’re doing well.
This sounds trite, and yet it’s the rare manager who consistently gives positive feedback. I remember starting a job and not knowing for months whether I was doing a great job, average, or was about to be fired. Seriously, being a naturally self-critical person probably fueled this to some degree, but not getting a single word of encouragement didn’t help. When I was eventually promoted, I figured I must be doing all right, but it was a very unsettling experience.
So let’s not take this for granted. It’s far easier to criticize than to praise, and as a manager you have to actively make a place for this in your day. This can be hard. It can make you feel self-conscious to say something unapologetically complimentary, and it can easily come out sounding insincere. Many, many years ago, someone told me that it sounded like I was saying things because I’d read in a book somewhere that I should. And he was absolutely right! That’s exactly why I was saying those things! They were true, but they sounded completely phony. The best way to get better at praise is to practice.
I’m still not great at it, but here are some different approaches, and thoughts on each.
Private / Concrete
“Nice job bringing down the load time on that commerce page!” “I heard that new widget increased conversion by 12%!” You want someone to know that you’re paying attention, that her efforts matter, and that this is the kind of behavior that earns respect. This might be a hallway conversation, part of a 1:1, or a bullet point in a performance review (though it really shouldn’t wait that long). Concrete praise (“you did X which resulted in Y – nice job!”) is generally the best kind, and I’ve found that private praise is usually the easiest to deliver.
Making a public statement about someone’s performance can be highly validating, extremely embarrassing, and potentially demotivating for everyone else. It can fuel resentment, accusations of sycophancy, and can make others feel that their contributions aren’t being valued. If you’re going to publicly announce successes, you have to make sure you’re casting them as team wins, with the individual as lead protagonist. It also helps to make them a regular part of your weekly meetings, so that everyone knows they’ll have their moment to shine. This does not mean that everyone gets a trophy because everyone’s a special snowflake. However, if you’re consistently unable to identify successes for one of your team members, then either there’s a performance problem, you aren’t paying attention, you’re biased, or something else is going on.
Sometimes, you know that someone’s going through a rough patch. Or you’ve been relying on them for so long that you’ve been taking them for granted. Or you know they’re doing good work overall, but there isn’t one thing that stands out. In this case, it can sometimes help just to let them know that you appreciate their presence on the team. “Hey, I know I don’t give positive feedback as often as I should, but I hope you know that you’re doing a great job. You’re someone I can really depend on, and that means a lot to me. We’re really lucky to have you on the team.” This can be a powerful way of resolving a team member’s doubt about their value to the team, but you can’t use it too often, as it’s non-specific and can end up sounding canned. Depending on your personal style and relationship with the individual, it could also come across as creepy. So, careful with this.
People love to get more money, right? Well, sort of. The problem with expressing positive feedback through bonuses is that you’re providing an external reward for an internally driven success. You’re training someone to be motivated by an “extrinsic” reward, and reducing the “intrinsic” motivation they feel. But wait, Dan – you’ve given people spot bonuses for great work! What gives? Well, that’s true. The key difference is that spot bonuses are rare, and completely unexpected. And honestly, when I have given them out, I’ve frequently been told that the praise that accompanied the (small, but meaningful) bonus meant more to the individual than the money. Food for thought.
The worst thing you can do is to give praise as a tactic – i.e., tell people things that aren’t true, but that you think will make them work longer or harder. Not only does this always backfire, it also makes you a bad person. So just don’t.
I always enjoy reading your posts and have found them very helpful. I wish more managers would learn to give feedback. In some cases, I’ve had to ask for feedback, but I’ve learned that the absence of feedback usually means I’m doing a good job. If I weren’t then, I would be hearing about it.
Do you really think those people were being sincere when they said the positive feedback meant more to them than the monetary bonus? I’m not sure how much small is, but in most cases when I got a bonus, I may have said something such as the accompanying praise meant a lot to me, because that’s what’s expected. It would be somewhat awkward to say something such as I’d rather get more money and less praise, so I wouldn’t say something like that. Praise is nice, but I can’t buy things with praise.
Hi Sue, thanks for the reply! Fair point – we’re definitely trained to say that “the money isn’t as important.” And while I believe my team members when they say that (and not all do :), it’s also true that adding some gelt to the equation is a stronger statement on the company’s part than just saying “good job”.