The art of praise

Andrea Schüller on April 1, 2015

If somebody gives you feedback, what do you remember? The five compliments or the one ‘little’ thing that was meant to be a tip for improvement? You can still recite the latter word by word, but the compliments drifted into oblivion, mentally filed under ‘I sort of knew that about me’? My point, entirely.

Ambitious, driven people want to get even better – every day. They crave suggestions for improvement. 57% of the respondents to a survey Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman published in the January 2014 issue of HBR said they’d prefer corrective feedback to praise/recognition. This effect got stronger, the more confident and the older respondents were. It’s almost as if they’d thought: “Come on. I’ve lived with myself for a while now. I know what I’m good at. Now give me the straight, unembellished version of how to still get better.”

I get that. There is a time and a place for both types of feedback: praise and suggestions. Both are an art form. Both loose, if they are mixed up in the dreaded ‘feedback sandwich’ (“I think you’re doing a great job, yet there is this thing I need to talk to you about …, but don’t worry, I really look forward to doing more work with you.”) This is when only the middle bit sticks and all the cushioning praise is disregarded as a ‘softening up’. If we have an idea, a tip, a suggestion, let’s cut to the chase.

Yet praise deserves just as much, if not more attention, purely because high performers don’t trust it, unless it’s well substantiated. It’s the nuances that count. So, a direct report of yours is widely known as ‘good with people’. That in itself, still doesn’t tell him much. You’re just coming out of an important client meeting where he worked his magic. He needs to know that the questions he asked to kick the conversation off were not only superb ones (you might want to quote them), but followed by a pause long enough for the client to feel that somebody genuinely wanted to know the answer. He needs to know that the way he built his proposal, linking it to the issues described every step of the way, worked really well. And finally he needs to know that in the many years you’ve known this client, they never offered that much information in a meeting like this and that this is due to him.

Why all the detail? So that he can consciously replicate, what he intuitively did well. Most importantly however, all these little moments of praise will build a notion of self-efficacy. The trust that he has all that he needs to steer things back into calmer waters, even when the going gets tough.

So, how to give positive feedback that sticks?

Normal Feedback rules apply: Situation – Behaviour – Impact (“when you … I saw the client do xyz”)

  • Specify the situation where you observed this,
  • Specify the behaviour and
  • talk about the impact it had on you, or that you saw it having on the situation/others

If somebody is looking for more general comments, it might help to think about

  • What do you most appreciate about working with this person? What do you most look forward to re working with him/her?
  • What do they bring to the table that’s missing when they’re not there?
  • How do they complement / balance what you have got to offer?

What do you think? I am curious to know

Andrea –