Employee Praise Is Not Simple

In the past two weeks I have heard a lot of talk about managers needing to praise their people.  They are being told that employees are hungry for praise, and that encouraging words are great motivators.  And for those managers that don’t give enough praise, it is being predicted they will lose their best people and fail to get results.

But wait!  Giving praise isn’t that simple.  It’s not something you want to spread around randomly.  Praise is complex because it’s used to accomplish a range of goals other than showing approval or appreciation.  It can also backfire when not used effectively as it can send a message very different from what was intended:

  • Mistake #1:  Praise that sends the message you are my subordinate and I’m the boss so I can judge you.  When we praise someone, it implies we have the right to sit in judgment of them, even if the judgment is positive. When delivering praise, be sensitive to signs of unequal status.  For example, calling the person into your office and delivering it from behind your desk.
  • Mistake #2:  Praise that makes an employee believe they’re being manipulated.  “Great job, Sara. Now I need you to produce two more reports by Thursday.” The manager isn’t necessarily insincere about the praise, but there is an obvious agenda. Employees learn to mistrust praise from such managers as a way to “motivate” them to do extra work.
  • Mistake #3:  Praise that is given before a reprimand or criticism to soften the blow.  Ah, the hanging “but.” If you get in the habit of using praise to soften a reprimand, employees will catch on. “Mike, your work has really improved… but you need to take more initiative.” Rest assured that the minute you say “but,” Mike forgot the praise.
  • Mistake #4:  Praise that is just disingenuous.  Sue has done a so-so report, but you don’t tell her that. Because she doesn’t seem to like you very much, you decide to use the occasion to try to get on her good side. “Excellent report,” you beam. But Sue knows it wasn’t all that good. And she sees you and your compliments as fake.

Given these mistakes, what is the secret to making praise impactful? 

  1. Don’t just give praise to praise. The manager needs to invest the time to decide that what the employee accomplished was indeed praiseworthy.  Ever heard of too much of a good thing?  If you keep giving praise without merit, they become expected and are no longer impactful.  Make sure the praise counts.
  2. Provide the specifics.  By taking the time to praise, you are able to give specific examples to the employee about what pleased you.  This can be used to reinforce that behavior for the future.
  3. Show they appreciate their employees’ talents.  Praise can demonstrate that they understand the contribution an employee makes to the organization.

In a nutshell, praise used successfully is not based on quantity but rather quality.  When used right, praise can be powerful.  Please share your comments.  Thank you.

photo credit


About Patricia Knight
Hello and welcome. My name is Patricia Knight. Thank you for taking the time to view my blog. I’m a Human Resources professional who is currently pursing an MBA at the University of Nevada-Reno. I am an analytical, detail-oriented professional who believes that collaboration and negotiation are critical for successful employee relations between leadership and employees.

6 Responses to Employee Praise Is Not Simple

  1. Lisa Drake says:

    Great Blog Post Patricia! Very important reminders, as employees want praise, but it’s all in the way you receive the praise and how often.

    • Thank you Lisa for reading! I just know that we always want to tell people that they have done well. It is just not as easy as people make it out to be. We certainly can overkill praise which loses effectiveness.

      ~ Warmly ~ Patricia

  2. ambersteenblock says:

    Patricia, I enjoyed your post. I so often fall into the “praise trap.” I think oh well if I want my people to be happy I should praise them more and they will like me more because of it. Little do I know though. Sometimes the more you praise people you can actually have the opposite effect on them. So how do you find that balance? How do you prevent yourself from over appraising employees or under appraising your employees? I guess you must find a balance, I will admit my balance has sort of been off. So I guess it’s always a work in progress. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks Amber for the comment. I have also had a hard time with balancing praise. I want to tell others good job all the time. What I have been finding as you discovered is it was losing effectiveness especially with high performers. So, I started to praise only when they have exceeded my & even their expectations. You will find your balance with trial & error. ~ Sincerely ~ Patricia

  3. Patricia, this is a great post! I find that administering praise is more of an art than a science in my line of work, and I think mistake #1 is the hardest to avoid!

    • Thanks Ken. You are exactly right about giving praise is an art form. It is not easy to give and harder for people to take as people are more suspect than before. I appreciate you taking the time to the read the post and commenting.


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