The Cheapest Way To Make Your Employees More Inspired
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Employees whose bosses recognize their accomplishments with praise are 63% more inspired to give their best effort at work. Simple, right? Just pay attention to your employees’ accomplishments and when you notice great things happening, praise the employees responsible. And that free activity can create huge increases in employee effort and engagement. So why don’t we do it?
I know a lot of leaders don’t love praising employees. They’re worried that employees’ heads will get too big or they feel like it’s an activity best left to teachers in elementary school. Some leaders tell me, “I already give my employees a paycheck, now they want a pat on the head too?”
I get it, and I’m not going to suggest that you try to channel your inner Mary Poppins. But, here’s some hard data that I hope will convince you to at least give this a try. The following chart comes from my research at Leadership IQ, involving more than 30,000 employees. These folks answered more than one hundred questions about their workplace and the following is a scatter plot showing the relationship between two of those questions:
- My leader recognizes my accomplishments with praise.
- Working here inspires me to give my best effort.
This scatter plot shows a hugely significant relationship between employees feeling like their accomplishments get recognized with praise and the extent to which they’re inspired to give their best effort at work. Statistically speaking, the R-Squared is .27 with a p<.0001. In English, that means that getting praised for your accomplishments explains about 27% of why you will, or won’t, feel inspired to give your best effort at work. So more than a quarter of your employees’ inspiration and effort comes from whether you, as their leader, recognize their accomplishments with praise. Seems like a pretty large return on investment for an action that takes five minutes of your time.
Now, some leaders are better at this than others. As you probably know from the online quiz “What’s Your Leadership Style?” there are four distinct styles; Pragmatist, Idealist, Steward and Diplomat.
- Pragmatists are driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else.
- Stewards are dependable, loyal and helpful, and they provide a stabilizing and calming force for their employees.
- Idealists are high-energy achievers who believe in the positive potential of everyone around them.
- Diplomats are kind, social, and giving, and typically build deep personal bonds with their employees.
Every leadership style has strengths, but the two styles most comfortable with praising employees are the Idealists and Diplomats. Of course, a style like the Diplomat will struggle more than others with giving constructive criticism, but that’s a challenge for a different article.
But even if your leadership style is more like the Pragmatist or Steward, you can still deliver great praise and inspire your employees. It may take you a little more conscious effort, but it’s still very achievable. Here are four ruling factors to abide by when giving positive reinforcement:
Rule No. 1: Make It Meaningful
You don’t need to blow constant smoke to keep people motivated with positive reinforcement. In fact, doling out meaningless praise is guaranteed to work against you. Good performers hate it when everyone gets the same reward. It provides no learning curve and no differentiation that their performance stands out from everyone else’s. The only folks that appreciate empty praise are low performers. For everyone else, it just kills their desire to work harder and diminishes their trust in you as their leader.
Rule No. 2: Be Specific
Too often when people give positive reinforcement they aren’t specific enough. They say, “Hey, great job on that report,” which is nice, but the person has no idea what they did on the report that the boss wants to see repeated again. “Great job” doesn’t qualify as positive reinforcement. It’s empty praise and it delivers a zero learning curve. In order to be effective, positive reinforcement must provide a clear picture of the specific performance that’s being commended.
So instead of saying, “Great job on that report,” you want to say something like “The way you got this report done ahead of schedule means a lot to both me and the customer. Given the short deadline, I’m especially pleased to see there are no typos. It’s obvious you spent considerable time proofreading it. Oh, and the extra data analyses are really creative.” Whatever the specific behaviors were that were really great, that’s what you want to communicate. Paint a picture with your words that exactly describes the behavior you are commending. When positive reinforcement provides a clear visualization of the specific skills and abilities that constitute high performance, it gives people something to grab on to and run with.
Rule No. 3: Catch Them In The Act
Positive reinforcement depends on a brain connection that associates the reward with the desired behavior. Which means you can’t store this stuff up and share it in yearly or quarterly reviews. If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to remember what happened two months ago, let alone what happened over the past 11 months. And even if you did recall every great thing someone did, nobody is going to be able to absorb all of that positive feedback if it’s dumped on them at one time. In order to have real impact, positive reinforcement has to be delivered in real time. Look for teachable moments when you see an employee doing something you like and let them know about it right there and then. Catch great performance as you see it happening and dole it out in small doses.
Rule No. 4: Don’t Cloud The Message With Criticism
There’s a place and a time for constructive criticism, but it isn’t when you’re delivering a positive message. Don’t make the mistake of trying to squeeze a negative performance critique or correction between layers of positive reinforcement. This is called a Compliment Sandwich and it sounds like this, “You’re the best programmer we’ve got. You are sometimes overly critical, but you’re just so talented, and I just want people to see how much benefit you bring.” Sandwiching a criticism between two compliments results in cognitive dissonance and ensures that the critical feedback will go unheard. Positive reinforcement is about being in the moment with something that was done right. Don’t waste the opportunity by trying to turn it into a buffer for bad news. If you have to deliver corrections or criticisms, keep it for another time.
Frequent positive feedback is critical to helping employees achieve their personal best. Again, this isn’t idle praise. We’re not saying, “Hey, thanks for showing up to work today.” Rather, it’s taking the teachable moments when someone really represents the behaviors and attitudes you want and providing specific reinforcement so that they know “Hey, that’s exactly what I did that was so good. I want to do that again.”
Mark Murphy is a NY Times bestseller, author of Hiring For Attitude, and founder of the leadership training firm Leadership IQ.