A proverbial pat-on-the-back is one of the most powerful motivators we can experience. It's no shame to desire approval. As William James said, "The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated." It imparts energy and unlocks discretionary effort, as well as reinforces desirable behaviors. However, not all praise is of equally high quality, and not all has the same effect. If you want your praise to be a powerful tool to motivate your team and steer their behavior, you should consider the following points:
* Mean it: If your praise isn't sincere, it won't work. People are not stupid, and they can spot an insincere attempt to manipulate them a mile away. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
* Praise, don't flatter: Praise focusses in what someone did, their choices, their character, and their abilities - things which they control. Flattery simply congratulates someone on that which they have no control over and did nothing to earn. "You have great hair" or "You really suit that color" may be nice to hear, but it isn't a measured analysis of someone's ability. Praise is different: "Your report was thorough and contained some really good insights" is praise based on someone's achievements.
* Try a little tenderness: Instead of criticizing behavior you want to see corrected in your staff, praise that which is done right. Positive reinforcement is so much more energizing than negative reproaches. For example, instead of complaining to a staff member that they have been late turning in a report, be emphatic in your appreciation when they get it turned in early.
* Get personal: The word 'you' isn't offensive or dangerous. You are allowed to use it, and you should. "You really came through with a great idea to save the team a lot of time there, thanks" beats the slightly dismissive-sounding "good job" any day.
* Always look for opportunities to praise: It's so easy to be wrapped up in our own work, needs and tasks, especially given how busy we all are these days. This means making a conscious effort to identify others' achievements and progress and give praise accordingly. If you struggle to remember to do so, then you may find it easier to set aside a specific time, maybe just before the end of your workday. Think back through the day's events and acknowledge work well done.
* Think about your recipient: Private or public? People aren't all the same, and comments made in public, for example in a staff meeting or in an informal setting such as an open-plan office can be very motivating to some, whereas one on one comments about a job well done can be preferable for less outgoing people.
* Give praise without caveats: When you give praise as a precursor to asking for something, you devalue the message of that praise. By making praise the sole point of the interaction, you give it greater value, rather than 'cheapening' it.
* Be specific: A vague complement doesn't mean an awful lot, and it comes across that way. A general "Nice job, everyone" to an entire team means as much as the lack of effort it takes to do it. Instead, giving a brief outline of how each person contributed to the team's success takes more effort, but means much more. The more detail you give people about what they did well, the more it will mean to them.
It's easy to give praise, and it takes barely any time at all, but it can be one of the most powerful tools to motivate people that there is. It's free, and all it costs is that small amount of time, along with a bit of effort and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, it's one of those things that falls way down the list of priorities, and often isn't given the priority it deserves. We may believe that 'credit where credit is due', but actioning it is another matter. It can help us to develop better relationships, more productive teams and better motivated staff, if we take the time to give them some recognition. Make the effort to acknowledge the achievements of others and you will be repaid in energy, positivity and loyalty.