Thursday, April 9, 2009

Has Praise in the Workplace Gone Too Far?

"You're great."

Who doesn't like to hear those words?

Most of us enjoy getting a pat on the back, especially at work. Complimentary words give us confidence, they motivate us and they help us believe that what we really do matters.

Still, there is nothing worse than praise that rings false. You know the kind:

"Oh, your presentation was fantastic! The best I've ever seen! And I mean, EVER!"

"What about when I fell off the stage? Or when the guy in the front row fell asleep and started snoring so loud even the back row heard him? Did you not see those 25 people leave after I'd been speaking for only 10 minutes?"

"Like I said: Fantastic! Now, I was wondering about your relationship with Bill Smith. I understand you know him and I'd just love to shoot him over a resume and was wondering if you might call on my behalf..."

Like I said, flattery is nice, but it can also backfire. If not done sincerely and at the right time, it can have the same impact -- possibly even worse -- than criticism. Why? Because it's humiliating to know that someone thinks so little of you that they would believe you would fall for such hollow words.

Believe it or not, offering praise that really counts for something takes some thought. If you think offering a compliment is no big deal, then maybe you need to reassess how and why you offer such words.Because if you're going overboard, it could just be that people will start to wear hip waders when you come around, just to get through the river of bullsh*t you seem to spew.

Let's look at some do's and don'ts of how to give praise that really matters:

* Don't be manipulative. Don't offer words of praise right before you make a request, such as the example provided above. Not only will the recipient of your false compliment not appreciate it, but it also can damage your reputation with others who won't appreciate your manipulation.

* Don't go overboard. Be specific when you offer a compliment. Instead of saying someone gave the "best presentation ever," cite an example: "I thought what you said in your presentation about green alternatives will really spark some innovation, which is what this company needs right now." Don't get caught up in saying "good job" for everything that passes your way. Take a minute and think about why it was a good job, then offer the compliment: "You really helped calm that customer down by not getting upset and by focusing on finding a solution. You really helped keep him as a customer."

* Don't give back-handed praise. "That was really a great idea you had for the new advertising campaign. Not bad for a guy who nearly lost us a big account last week." Compliments should not be used as a diversion for sticking a knife in someone's back.

* Do take the time to do it right. As I said in the beginning, sincere forms of flattery can not only motivate you, but give you confidence. Why would you rush through something so meaningful? If you're going to give a compliment, take the time to do it right. Look the person in the eye and make sure you have their full attention. And remember: Sometimes it's especially nice to give words of praise in front of others.

* Do understand that everyone likes praise. Some people at work are quiet and seem to exist in their own world. You can't imagine that what you think would matter to them. Or, there are the brash employees who constantly proclaim they don't give a dead rat's ass what anyone else thinks. No reason to worry about complimenting people like that, right? Wrong. Everyone likes to hear kind words. It's a form of nourishment for the spirit that is especially important during tough times like these in the workplace.

What are your thoughts on offering praise?


David Benjamin said...

I was right about to give you praise for this post but then I thought...oh noes, I'm falling into that trap :)

But seriously, great blog. It reminds me of people watching a new golfer. They get the ball off the ground and everyone praises them for thier shot.

Giving praise, recommendations, or testimonials should be for those that truly deserve it. Giving specific praise as you mentioned is much more helpful and sincere.

Anita said...

Well, I'm going to thank you anyway! :)

I think we all crave praise, but you're right -- those words are much more meaningful when we deserve it (and honestly, we know when we deserve it and when we don't.)

I hear people say "good job" a lot, and I have to wonder if we even hear it anymore.

Dan Erwin said...

For some people, the ship is sinking because of lack of praise. I appreciate your focus on specific, concrete praise. I use a feedback approach when I give it, and always tell the person why I appreciated their act or behavior. In other words, "Jean, I really appreciated that. . . . Here's why it meant a lot to me. . . ." Takes a little time to think it through, but, as a result, people never forget.

Anita said...

I hope it didn't come across that I meant you shouldn't give ANY praise. Just that it be sincere. What has made me think about this more and more is that some people do it so flippantly -- and that strikes me as a problem. A "good job" seems to often be tossed around like a "have a nice day."
But I really like your approach...I think it not only forces you to be specific, but to be honest about why you're offering those nice words.

Alexandra Levit said...

Great post, Anita! I'm going to feature it on Water Cooler Wisdom next week. Hope you're doing well.

Kind Regards,

Alexandra Levit
Columnist, Wall Street Journal
Author, They Don't Teach Corporate in College
Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom

Anita said...

So glad you found the post useful!