In praise of praising

The number one employee complaint always pinpoints one issue: not being recognised for a job well done.

While it is so easy to praise, just ask around: When last did you get proper recognition for a job well done? I ask this question in group meetings with each of my clients and only a few hands will go up. When I ask: “Did the praising consist of something more than a brief “thanks, well done” and was a meaningful reason supplied?” even fewer hands go up.

Then the reverse question: “Did you in the past week provide praise plus an explanation to a colleague or someone outside your team? Please raise your hands.” More often than not, there’s a no show.

We all have experienced that thoughtful praise is nice – and at crucial stages in our lives, even extremely important. And for this reason I would like to quote the findings of two sets of respected sources on this topic:

The Gallup Organisation ranks praise 4th among 12 conditions which employees would wish to see in place: “In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?” The 12 conditions are based squarely on what employees value. Traditionally, organisations undervalue how employees feel about their work, workplace and customers – in fact, just about everything that affects the work that they do.  (Instead, productivity, cutting costs, profitability and growth are the issues that get the most attention.)

The consultants at VitalSmarts, Provo, Utah, devoted seven pages to this topic in their important book Crucial Confrontations. They observed that those who are best at holding crucial confrontations (holding a person accountable in such a manner that the problem is resolved and the relationship benefits) make good use of praise between confrontations. People around them assume that they have their best interests in mind as the leaders consistently provide recognition when things are going well. “When given sincerely and often, praise provides a reserve of respect one can draw from when it’s time to talk about a failed promise”.

VitalSmarts advises to praise more than you think you should and then double it. You will of course, worry about going overboard. “We don’t want to cheapen our praise by doling it out so liberally that it no longer means anything. So we hold our praise for special occasions such as Olympic medal ceremonies, retirement parties, and funerals. After all, there can be too much of a good thing.”

The VS authors point out that often we do not see the positive. “When your direct reports are plugging along all day in and all day out and aren’t causing problems, who could notice that?  In fact, Sherlock Holmes once solved a crime because he alone observed that the dog wasn’t barking.”

The VS authors observed that praise statistics never get any better and that “this embarrassing consistency is a function of the fact that our society suffers from obscured vision – we can only see the bad”. People “are so blinded by problems that they don’t notice things gone right.”

It is easy to notice huge achievements, but honouring the exceptional is expected. “It feels like getting your due”. “Mark Twain once suggested he could live for two months on a good compliment.” He was a hero. How much more do code writers, design assistants, copy writers, frontline staff, secretaries and others long for a simple, thoughtful, reasoned word of thanks?

“And what will it take to be able to first see and then celebrate achievements other than record-breaking performances?” What if our employees felt that we always noticed their hard efforts and good works? What if our companies are known as places where good deeds were noticed and rewarded?

How to turn things around?

Commit to instituting a regular process. “Until we buy into the notion that expressing honest appreciation as a leader, friend and parent is one of our most important jobs, we’re not likely to do much to overcome the mental mechanisms and years of habit that keep us focused on problems”. The former chairman of the largest companies in the world started his day with writing short, sincere positive messages to people he worked with – to boost the people he worked with. (You might prefer starting your day with a 10-minute strategic/operational review of what the outcomes of the day should be and during this meeting and later during the day be on the lookout for opportunities to build others whenever you meet with them or when you write to them.)

Commit to also recognising modest accomplishments. The chairman also thanked people for not only hitting home runs but for cheering from the bench or quietly offering support.  “Our current standards for recognition contain two enormous barriers. First, the feat must be monumental. Second, the reward must match. Break the habit. Look for and praise small things. Most of us are already celebrating big things”.

Schedule time to do nothing but focus on things gone right. Walk around and look around for elements that you could praise. Then write a thoughtful email or note. Tell people what they did and why it’s worth noting and end with a simple “Thank You.” Keep it short and sincere.

With time and practice you’ll start noticing things gone right more naturally. And if you are already doing it right, quietly give yourself a pat on the back.

PS Go to for details about three remarkable books – which I unreservedly recommend reading.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you, kind sir, for an interesting and thought- and action-provoking article. I have patted myself on the back, but also realized how much less often I praise at home compared to at work. I shall immediately rectify this.

  2. Hi Ilana – Your comment feels like sincere praise – which I appreciate – and I’m glad the post struck a responsive cord.

    Many thanks!

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