Praising well is an art

In one of your articles you addressed "not using competition as a motivator," and suggested that praising the results of one person in a meeting will lead to other staff resenting the manager and scorning the "star."

My question is, what then is the appropriate way for a manager to acknowledge the person doing the exceptional job? If that person (the star) goes out of his or her way to contribute to the department, sets a standard of self-initiative and enthusiasm and is not recognized for those efforts, doesn’t it potentially thwart those efforts?Even if the star doesn’t do it for the recognition? How does one acknowledge the superstar?

If you think I’m suggesting that a manager should never praise a star in front of the team, I’m glad you asked the question, because it will give me the opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding.

It seems counterintuitive but praise can be as tricky to deliver as negative feedback. The science of praise is the easier part. Well-delivered praise is specific and thanks the person for what he or she did. If appropriate, it also ties their action to the goal. ("Thanks for working through your lunch hour. I really appreciate your extra effort on this project, especially since we’re working to improve our response time to our customers.")

But the "art" of praise is subtler. It involves the "where" and "when" and "why." For example, if a manager praises a few employees and ignores the rest, there will be problems. In the example to which you refer, a manager who uses public praise of one employee to try to motivate the other employees is likely to see it backfire.

Here’s why. The "art" of praise must take into account:

  • The manager’s intent
  • The amount of praise the manager gives all employees
  • The balance between private and public praise
  • The evolutionary stage of the team

The manager’s intent.
If the manager is simply trying to share the good news about a member of the group, so everyone can applaud and feel good for the person (as well as for the team's goal), the intentions are honorable and the group will respond well. If, however, the manager’s intention is to use the person’s success to shame or embarrass the group into better performance, it will fail. Somehow it will always sound like a parent saying, "Why can’t you be as smart as your brother?" It just doesn’t go down well.

The amount of praise the manager gives all employees.
If the manager is uneven in the amount of praise she gives, employees will notice. Even employees who don’t need a lot of praise will smell a whiff of favoritism. If the manager is consistent about encouraging each employee, there will be no resentment if she singles out one of the team on occasion. They know they’ll get their share.

The balance between private and public praise
Some people are embarrassed when they are complimented in front of others. Other people like to bask in public acknowledgment. Smart managers make sure they mix it up. They mention the employee’s good work in one-on-one meetings, when they are reviewing projects or giving a performance review. In addition, they thank the employee and mention the person’s good efforts on the fly, within earshot of others. Finally, when there is a big achievement, it’s celebrated during a group meeting.

The evolutionary stage of the team
When the team is new, has a mix of seasoned and new employees, or is under stress, it’s best to praise individuals privately and focus on team goals and group praise when the team is together. The reason? In each of these situations, employees may feel insecure about their status within the group. As the group starts to gel and their confidence grows, singling out individual members of the team will be cause for enthusiastic applause.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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