Camila and Sanjay completed an important project for the company and presented their analysis and recommendations to the management group. They thought things went pretty well. Three days later, their boss approached them saying, “I have a few concerns about your budget assumptions, and I’m unclear about a couple of your recommendations, but overall, really nice job.”
They felt deflated. Was that supposed to be positive feedback?
Praise is a powerful, positive leadership tool. Yet, it is rarely used effectively. Authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, in a Harvard Business Review article, “Why Do So Many Managers Avoid Giving Praise?,” report findings from their research demonstrate that managers believe themselves to be effective when they give criticism. The same research reveals that employees believe their managers are more effective when they give praise.
Offering genuine positive feedback and recognition are powerful elements of leadership. People like working with those who have a positive attitude. People are more enthusiastic about following the leadership of someone who recognizes and values their work. What does sincere praise look like?
Five Keys to Great Positive Feedback
Be specific about your praise. “Overall, really nice job” falls flat — it’s generic and doesn’t mean anything. Positive feedback needs to connect to something specific: “I thought your analysis of the market opportunity provided the management group with real insight. Great effort to dig deep!”
Acknowledge the person, the effort, and the impact. Praise should be personal. What’s important to acknowledge is not just the work output, it’s the effort and the impact for the organization. “Great report” is not as meaningful to people as, “Thanks for staying late last Thursday to do such thorough work on the report — it really shows and it will make a huge difference for the sales team.”
Praise people right away. Sanjay and Camila’s boss waited three days to muster a lukewarm “nice job.” It took so long, that it might be perceived as an insult — “Three days,” thought Camila and Sanjay, “and that’s the best she could do?” Praise can’t wait for days or be stockpiled for the next annual performance review. The sooner the better.
Follow-up with a positive question that demonstrates interest. A follow-up question shows you care and reinforces that your praise is genuine. If the boss liked the analysis of the market opportunity, a follow-up question about how they leveraged what they learned from the focus group research they conducted would tell Camila and Sanjay that the positive feedback was real, their boss was actively listening, and she cared about their work.
Deliver your positive feedback, then stop talking! The most effective praise stands on its own as a separate and complete statement. Many supervisors preface, bracket, or conclude positive feedback with a criticism. In fact, many supervisors were trained to deliver criticism using the “compliment sandwich” method — praise, criticism, praise. To be most impactful, sincerely praise someone, and leave it at that.
Praise is not only helpful for the receiver, it benefits the giver as well. Offering positive feedback and recognition to others reinforces your own self-confidence, self-esteem, and sense of yourself as a constructive, forward-looking leader.
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