Employee Engagement Recognition

The Right Way to Praise Your People

One of the core pillars of employee engagement is appreciating your employees for good work. Why do so many Asian managers find this hard to do?

You know what is cheap?

A word of praise, evidence that you’ve noticed one of your employees doing good work. Costs almost nothing, except some attentional resources and a couple of breaths.

You know what is expensive?

Losing your best people because they don’t feel recognised. The lost productivity from having a team with a man down, the scramble to hire a replacement and onboard her, and the time taken for her to settle into a new work culture and environment costs anywhere from 30% to 400% of a person’s annual salary.

Research by Deloitte shows that companies with effective recognition programs have 31% lower voluntary turnover than companies with ineffective programs.

They also found that senior leaders overestimate how often employees are recognised. Almost 80% of senior leaders believe employees are recognised at least on a monthly basis, but only 40% of managers and 22% of employees report that they’re recognized monthly or more often.

Why is praise so hard to give?

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There are various reasons leaders have shared with me about why they’d err on the side of parsimony with praise.

If I praise 1 employee, it may motivate her but demotivate everyone else whom I didn’t praise…

I don’t have time to monitor everything that everyone does. If I don’t scold my staff for 365 days in a year, they will know they’re doing a good job…

I’m scared that if I praise people too often, when it comes to salary readjustment season everyone will have expectations much larger than I can deliver. When I don’t give massive increments, my best people will leave…

When I praise people I notice they slack off after that, and think they’ve already done enough to impress the boss…

I praise my staff enough, but I balance it with constructive criticism so they can learn from their mistakes…

Let’s visit each of these ideas in turn.

The Confucian Gambit

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If I praise 1 employee, it may motivate her but demotivate everyone else whom I didn’t praise…

The logic behind this objection is that praise for an individual undermines the collective. Since Asians are seen to be less individualistic, the extra motivation from praising one is (possibly more than) outweighed by the diminished motivation from her team.

Of course, this assumes that:

  1. Praise is a one-off event;
  2. Praise is unidirectional (ie ‘boss-to-employee’)

Gallup research suggests that recognition for good work should happen as often as every 7 days, for every individual. By achieving this level of frequency, you successfully build a culture of recognition for performance, encouraging each individual and the whole team to collectively strive to achieve higher standards.

An interesting side effect of this is the trickle-down effect of praise: if you as the leader are liberal with recognising exceptional effort and results, you’ll find that your team starts modelling that behaviour, recognising each other.

The #likeaboss Postulate

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I don’t have time to monitor everything that everyone does. If I don’t scold my staff for 365 days in a year, they will know they’re doing a good job…

In my consulting days, I’ve actually encountered this feedback about praise multiple times from top executives who really should know better.

First, part of the responsibility of management is to inspect what you expect. If you’re not laying out clear expectations of your team on what constitutes good performance, and/or not building a system that allows you to monitor output quality, you’re probably not doing your job as a manager. This has been a core responsibility since Peter Drucker articulated it in his seminal work The Effective Executive, and possibly even before.

Second, the lack of positive feedback leaves employees lost as to what exactly they are doing that is working, or whether their boss is actually just asleep at the wheel. Compound that with the negative effects that purely negative feedback has on them:  short-term behaviour change, decreased self-esteem, lower employee engagement, greater resentment and fear, among others.

Put another way, you don’t have time to not monitor your employees for good performance, and to recognise them for it.

The Compensation Conundrum

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I’m scared that if I praise people too often, when it comes to salary readjustment season everyone will have expectations much larger than I can deliver. When I don’t give massive increments, my best people will leave...”

There is an ounce of truth in this one, in that consistent recognition with no change in rewards may come across empty, and lose its impact over time. The interesting thing to note is salary adjustments are no more motivating than intangible rewards.

Movie tickets, iPads, other consumer goodies, or even extra time off, serve as useful task/milestone-specific incentives. Even if you were to give out a cash incentive for such milestones, by making it special and a one-time event, it does not dilute its value as a permanent pay increase does.

These short-term rewards and bonuses are just as motivating as a long-term pay increases and have far less impact on the company bottom line.

Furthermore, in case this article hasn’t already hinted as much, frequent praise and recognition actually has the effect of lengthening employee tenure, not shortening it.

The Slacker Hypothesis

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When I praise people I notice they slack off after that, and think they’ve already done enough to impress the boss…

I praise my staff enough, but I balance it with constructive criticism so they can learn from their mistakes…

The next two objections are related. Both suggest the need to balance praise and criticism, and indeed you do. Most leaders, however, are far off from optimal in where they strike their balance.

Harvard Business Review articulates the ratio of about 5 positive statements to 1 negative in maintaining a productive workforce with high levels of employee engagement. This is important to note: leaders shouldn’t shy away from giving criticism, they just need to ensure they give enough praise also to balance the scales.

In being fair and objective in both praise and criticism, you build trust and a culture that doesn’t tolerate politicking and favoritism. Ensuring that you give enough praise keeps that energy focused towards productive goals.

5 Easy-to-implement Ideas

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So what would be a few good ways to express praise and recognition? It doesn’t have to be hard.

Here are a few simple things you can do.

1. Embrace transparency

The most important thing you need to do as a leader is to be open and honest with your employees – and this applies even with praise. Don’t just whip out compliment-of-the-week. Make sure you give genuine praise, with the same rules for feedback of any sort: timely, relevant and direct. When your staff see that you’re being genuine and honest with them, they’ll be happier and more engaged.

2. Make personal emails a habit

Remember that one time your boss sent you a personal note thanking you for something you worked really hard to accomplish? I bet you do, even if it happened years ago. Your employees will remember your email too…when you send it.

3. Build a culture of recognition

Deloitte’s research finds that recognition and praise means more when it comes from peers. Unlike bosses they’re with you ‘in the trenches’ everyday, so their recognition is even more relevant.

Encourage a culture where employees are in the habit of praising one another. It will create a stronger, more collaborative team.

4. Find ways to help your people grow

One of the best ways to recognise your employees is to take an interest in their professional (and when appropriate, even personal) growth. By linking each individual’s aspirations to the roles they play and finding opportunities for growth in the dimension of those aspirations, your staff will sense the appreciation and work harder for you.

Someone in recruiting who has shown an interest in organising events? Put them in charge of the next company D&D. A person in operations who enjoys writing? Get them to contribute to the next department newsletter. These chances present themselves more often than you think: you just need to stay alert to them.

5. Show genuine care for them as individuals

As the boss, you should definitely show an interest in the life of your employees outside of work. (Without being too ‘kay poh’ of course) It shows them that you value them as people, not just mechanical cogs in a wheel.

I’ve heard an SME (Small-Medium Enterprise) CEO share with me his efforts to help a staff of his kick a vicious gambling habit. While it was certainly outside the terms of reference of a typical CEO job, it bought him the loyalty of that staff for life.

It’s just the right thing to do

If nothing else, you as a leader should shower praise and recognition to your team just because it’s the right thing to do. When times are tough, and there will always be tough times in business, these are the people who will stand by you and fight with you through the chaos that will ensue. Shouldn’t you spare a positive word or two for them when they get things right?

Author: Chee Tung

CheeTung is the CEO of EngageRocket, an HR tech startup that analyses employee feedback in real-time to advise you on how to build a better culture, one team at a time.

2 Comments

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    […] it actually has on motivation are sometimes not well understood. Other factors like autonomy, recognition, social influences, the feeling of mastery, a connection with a larger purpose, among others, […]

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    […] One source of this debt comes from the “hire and forget” phenomenon. Managers think they’ve done such a great job hiring, that they no longer need to help coach their staff. Or they are not used to giving feedback in a way that balances both constructive elements and positive reinforcement. […]

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