Everyone is hungry for appreciation, but can you over-praise?

Over the years, I have sat down with hundreds of business owners, many that I call friends. While diverse in industry and management style, there are similarities in this concern: How much is too much praise for a job well done?

I had lunch with my friend Justin and he shared this story: On the previous day his company’s marketing mgr, Jennifer, had laid out the final 2014 marketing plan at the weekly staff meeting. Justin and others were excited about her plan. After they gave their comments, Tom, the company’s VP of marketing started to speak. “I want to say…” Tom began, and then abruptly stopped. The discussion then moved on to other topics on the agenda.

Afterward, Justin asked Tom, “What were you going to say at the meeting, and why did you stop?” Tom answered: “I was going to recognize the outstanding job that Jennifer did with her marketing plan but I’ve already praised her twice this week. I don’t want to go overboard.”

So what’s wrong with saying “nice job”?

There is a fear (an irrational one, in my view) concerning praising employees too much. Managers believe that one “attagirl” or “attaboy” too many can ruin a good employee. Here are several common concerns associated with praising employees, followed by reasons those fears may be unfounded:

  • “When you praise an employee too often, he/she will get spoiled. You should always mix praise with constructive criticism.”

While constructive criticism or I prefer “constructive observation” is essential when things aren’t going well, don’t invent areas for improvement. Positive reinforcement is a great motivator (ask any school teacher). When something goes right, you won’t jinx the good results by praising them. You may even get your employees to put forth a better effort next time.

  • “If you praise an employee a lot, he/she will slack off.

This is the Major League Baseball argument, but it doesn’t compare in a knowledge-worker environment where multi-million dollar salaries aren’t part of the drill. If the employee backs off the effort after you’ve acknowledged his good work, you can have another conversation to get things back on course. “When I said that you did a great job, Kyle, I meant that I like the direction that your work is going. I want you to push even harder the next time out.” There’s no need to dial back the praise because an employee got confused about the message you were sending.

  • “If you praise an employee, he/she will expect more money.”

This argument is easily countered. Just share the financial drivers for your business. If his response is “Thanks for the praise, now can I have a salary increase?” you can show him how the company’s operating expenses & revenues mingle. Most importantly, let him know the specific results that would make his larger salary possible. The more specific you can be, the more your employee will understand.

CAUTION: You should never praise people when they don’t deserve it. If you do, your complimentary words will lose their effectiveness as a motivator. If you give praise when it is undeserved, you lose credibility and it will undermine the whole group’s efforts.

It’s tempting, when you’re acutely aware of the weaknesses and strengths of your team, to focus on what needs improvement but that isn’t good management. It can be demoralizing. People need to feel pride in their work and the end of the year is the perfect time to do it. Better yet, how about doing it consistently.

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