Praise and Leadership

Bryan Brulotte - Unity. Prosperity. Compassion. #CanadaUnited

It may seem like a soft skill, but get praise right and it can transform your team and organisation. Psychological studies show it improves performance, deepens relationships, builds trust, engagement and supercharges productivity. 

When were you last praised wholeheartedly? How did it feel? Chances are you raised your game. I remember the first time.  For me it was on my military basic training course. My Corporal section commander saw my task completion, turned, looked me in the eye and said ‘You are a soldier’. I never looked back.  

Praise or appreciation is anything that makes someone feel valued – recognition, giving your time, listening or asking opinions, as well as direct praise. This is especially important to our ‘millennial’ generation who want to feel valued and developed rather than have their worth reflected by material things. Not being valued is one of the most frequently cited reasons for leaving a job. 

Many studies find a direct correlation between performance and praise. Leadership studies, researched 100’s of work place environments and found that with a ratio of 5:1 praise to criticism, there was a 94% chance of increased employee engagement. In a study at Michigan University a similar ratio of 5:1 was found in the best performing teams. KPMG have found that 53% of working men and women say that receiving praise from colleagues, leaders and mentors most influences their perception of themselves in the workplace.

However, praising often does not come naturally to us and may feel uncomfortable at first. This is partly due to an evolutionary bias – our ancient reptilian brain is still programmed to look for threats in the environment (sabre toothed tigers around the corner) so we tend to notice the negative rather than the positive. We may therefore have to actively look for things to praise. Once we start though, we are more likely to continue, as giving praise raises our dopamine levels (the chemical associated with wellbeing and joy), as well as those of the recipient, who will want to repeat the behaviour to recreate that good feeling. 

PRAISE has to be delivered in a certain way to have enduring impact: 

Praise publically, correct privately. Make sure others hear when you praise someone, but if you have to give negative feedback, make that a 1:1

Real and honest. It’s got to be true and felt by the giver – don’t make it up, as it can have the opposite effect. If it’s a small thing it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s honest.  

Actively look for things to praise. We have to learn to observe and actively look for what others do well, especially to get to the 5:1 ratio. Practise this skill every day!

Immediately and often. Immediate praise feels more authentic and given at the time is more likely to lead to the behaviour being repeated. 

Sincere and Specific. Praising something general such as saying ‘You’re a great sales rep’ has less impact than ‘You did a brilliant piece of salesmanship in yesterday’s presentation. It was so clear’. The more specific it is, the more it will be perceived as sincere. 

Especially praise people who don’t get much or where you have a difficult relationship. The quiet ones may not receive much praise, but they need it possibly more. It can be a brilliant way to build trust in a relationship.   Giving praise has to become a habit. Look for opportunities every day and see if you can reach the 5:1 ratio. What’s your experience of receiving praise? Do you find it difficult to give and why? Is 5:1 an impossible task?