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Giving praise: a useful framework managers can follow

Published 13th June 2018 by Investors in People
Giving praise at work

Giving praise is key to effective management: it’s a crucial step in strengths-based coaching, team development, improving individual confidence and generally aligning team and individual performance with organisational objectives. But many managers don’t feel confident giving praise because they’re worried about coming across as insincere or patronising. In this article we look at a simple framework for giving praise that should help managers develop the confidence to do so regularly.

Step 1: Begin building praise into your natural thought process

Praise can be difficult for managers because it feels abstracted out from their day-to-day activities, as if praise is more ‘human’ than other tasks.

A really useful exercise [PDF] from R. Bruce McAfee of Old Dominion University asks participants to write down a series of ‘praise statements’ based on their recent experiences at work. If you did this, how much would you be able to write down?

You should always be on the lookout for behaviours and actions that are worthy of praise. The key question to ask is: what are people doing every day that’s beneficial to organisational goals and objectives?

Praise is given at a point in time, but it’s part of a longer-term process of self-development.

Step 2: Isolate the individual’s behaviour or action

Behaviour-specific praise (BSP) is an evidence-based strategy for managing classrooms and reinforcing positive behaviours in schools [PDF]. One of its main tenets is isolating the behaviour or action that is creating a positive effect and explicitly referring to it when giving praise.

For managers, this keeps the praise specific and relevant. When we’re not sure exactly what we’re praising, and instead being general or referring to people’s traits, it can feel more like a Parent-Child interaction rather than an Adult-Adult interaction. What exactly has the person done that is worthy of praise?

Step 3: Understand why you are trying to reinforce the behaviour with praise

Following on from the above point, why is giving praise important with regard to this specific behaviour or action? Praise is about positive reinforcement and as managers we need to praise people when their behaviour or actions have a beneficial effect on something the organisation considers important.

It may be the behaviour aligns with organisational values (putting the customer first, for instance), meets an acute team goal or improves a process that is critical to hitting financial targets. Whatever it is, it’s important you’re able to put into words how the behaviour has made a difference.

Step 4: Link the action or behaviour back to personal goals

As well as meeting organisational objectives, it’s nice when managers can link behaviours back to personal goals.

Mastery and growth are key intrinsic motivators and so making a clear link between the behaviour and the individual’s personal growth can help ensure the person is motivated to continue displaying the praised behaviour.

This obviously requires the line manager to have a good knowledge of each individual and the personal trajectory they’re on.

Step 5: Give ways to ‘improve’ on the behaviour

Praise is given at a point in time, but it’s part of a longer-term process of self-development for the individual and relationship-building between manager and direct report.

Praise can be difficult for managers because it feels abstracted out from their day-to-day activities, as if praise is more ‘human’ than other tasks.

It’s useful to give advice on how the person can make the behaviour even more effective in future. This will depend on what the behaviour or action is. For mentoring behaviours, for example, it could be to take a training course to build confidence. For technical skills it may be simply to continue developing the skill.

Step 6: Use a style you’re comfortable with - and make the praise timely

When you actually come to give praise, it’s easy to turn it into a ‘big deal’ because you’re nervous. You don’t need to take someone into a private room every time: you can just casually praise them. This can help embed it in your daily team development toolkit. However, if you feel it’s worthy of a more formal environment, then make it more formal.

Don’t let the word ‘praise’ influence your personal style for giving feedback at work: many managers think it means they have to adopt a ‘softer’ approach to it rather than treat it as another process in the managerial toolkit. What you’re doing is reinforcing a behaviour and helping an employee see why what they’ve done is good and you should use a style you’re comfortable with.

And don’t wait too long after the behaviour before you give praise - you want it to be as fresh as possible in the employee’s mind.

Feedback is a gift and a key ingredient in individual and team performance. Take a look at our article on how HR can help managers drive a feedback culture