The effect of praise is quite powerful, yet it appears to be one of the most difficult parts of a manager’s job.
A survey by Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, found that 37% of the more than 7 600 participants do not give positive reinforcement. More than 20% admit that they avoid getting any negative feedback.
CEO Jack Zenger and company president Joseph Folkman say leaders carry “some incorrect beliefs” about the value and benefit of different forms of feedback. “They vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement,” they say in an article published by Harvard Business Review.
Asanda Gcoyi, CEO of CB Talent in Pretoria, says the art of giving praise is in its most simplistic form an appreciation of something that someone has done well.
“It is an understanding, not only in the workplace but also in your personal sphere, that some things take effort and as an individual you need to be giving praise when it is warranted,” Gcoyi says.
That means understanding situations and the effort it takes to do certain tasks, from the other person’s point of view. “Sometimes there is a sense that if you praise, you are promoting complacency, and that people keep that standard at which they received praise and don’t raise it.”
True North executive coach Sue Welman says it is not as simple as giving or not giving praise. It is also about being able to deliver the praise in the preferred communication style of the recipient.
“If you do not speak my language, I am less likely to hear you. This is not in terms of languages as such, but the person’s preferred ways of communicating,” Welman says.
There are people who require a great deal of detail in order to connect, or there are the “big picture” people.
Gcoyi adds: “There is no substitute for truly knowing the people who are working with you.”
Striking the balance
The challenge once you have been identified as a non-praise-giver – and once it has been identified as a weakness – is to not overcompensate and overpraise.
Welman says people naturally sense when you are being insincere. Focus on being authentic and real. Know who you are talking to and what exactly you are trying to convey.
The starting point is to learn to say thank you. That is the foundation. Gcoyi says once we have “thank you” as a foundation, it becomes much easier to move on to positive praise. Without thanking someone for doing something, giving praise will not be a natural next step.
Psychologists believe that for every negative statement there should be several positive statements. In the end it is about identifying and giving appreciation for a person’s value – either in terms of their skill, delivery or contribution to the team or project, says Welman.
“When people feel valued as a consistent foundation, they are more open to discussing potential areas for development. I believe it becomes less about the balance between praise and negative feedback and more about building a foundation of trust within which honest conversations can be had by all,” she says.
The Zenger/Folkman survey does not give insight into why managers are so hesitant to give positive feedback.
However, past experiences have shown that it starts with a perception that the really good managers are the tough graders who are not afraid to tell people what is wrong. Their findings do suggest that if people want to be seen as a good feedback-giver, they should proactively develop the skill of giving praise as well as criticism.
“Giving positive feedback shows your subordinates that you are in their corner, and that you want them to win and to succeed. Once people know you are their advocate, it should also make giving criticism less stressful and more effective,” the authors wrote.
It is all in the words. There is an art to having a candid conversation, says Welman. Giving positive feedback that is not sincere, or when the person knows that there is unhappiness about their performance, is counter-productive.
“Instead, invest in having candid conversations that address the issues and lead to growth,” she advises.
‘Feedforward’ versus feedback
Incorporate “feedforward” in your praise instead of only feedback. “You have the power to change future behaviour, so people feel more empowered when they are given feedforward.”
Gcoyi cautions against using the word “but”. “It wipes out all the positive praise because the focus moves on to the negative. If you feel the ‘but’ word forming on your lips, bite your tongue and rather say nothing.”
Also resist comparing the one getting the praise with someone else. It diminishes the praise and puts a negative perspective on it. “People are different. Praise the person for what he has done and do not involve another person.”
As a general rule, Gcoyi includes two questions in every performance review meeting:
1. What is the one thing that I am doing which you feel helps you a lot, and that I can do more of?
2. What am I doing that if I did less of it, would make things better for you?
People are a bit sceptical about answering at first, but it gives them some food for thought. They will have something to tell at the next meeting, and you will be surprised that it is sometimes the smallest of things that people want.
If a manager realises that his inability to praise or to praise positively is a weakness, they need to change their behaviour. Changing behaviour is not an easy task, says Gcoyi.
“It takes courage to admit a weakness. It takes humility to know you are not perfect. It takes discipline to challenge yourself and to set a plan in motion to change.”
Welman also cautions against “ostentatious displays of praise”. Not everyone is comfortable with it, hence the importance of understanding each person’s preferred communication style.
“Praise and performance conversations should also not be limited to the yearly or bi-annual performance reviews; it should be an ongoing conversation, not once-off distant events,” Gcoyi adds.
This article originally appeared in the 25 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.