I was the new guy at YES and convened a focus group of around 25 senior leaders and school directors from around the system to learn about their perspectives on leadership.
We came together, focus-grouped, and left. The next morning I woke up unsure if it went really well, just ok, or fell flat. I felt it went well, but things aren’t always what they seem. The audience was tough to read.
I sat in my new-guy office, alone, people passing outside my door, when I looked up and saw the Chief Operating Officer walk by. She stopped, backtracked into my doorway, walked in, threw out a fist-bump, and said, “Hey, great job on that focus group last night. That was awesome. You nailed it. Glad you’re on board.”
She walked away just as swiftly as she appeared and left me befuddled. I stared at my fist as if I’d fist-bumped a celebrity and felt this rush of energy.
“Wow,” I thought. “The COO thought I nailed it. I don’t need much more confirmation than that!”
That moment had a huge impact on me. If the COO thought I did well, I must have done well, and now I had an expectation to live up to.
“If she thought that was great, wait ‘til she sees what’s next.” Whatever I was doing at that moment – organizing data, planning a workshop, reading a book – I’m sure I did it with ten times more intentionality, energy, and focus. I crushed that spreadsheet.
As I continued in the role and got better and more specialized, I received feedback on a regular basis that was both constructive and affirming, but none stuck out like that moment.
First, praise is the greatest motivator for excellent performance. More than almost anything else, recognition feeds the soul and lifts team members to higher levels. It releases dopamine which floods the brain and brings meaning to work.
Second, positive feedback plays a powerful role for learners while negative feedback is more necessary for seasoned vets. When you’re learning a new role, positive praise reinforces what a good job looks like. It gives you something to benchmark your performance. And as soon as you know that task is acceptable, you’ll repeat it over and over again.
Lastly, positive praise builds human connection, which is the foundation of strong work environments (unless you are the only human working in a widget-making factory, in which case well-oiled machines are the competitive advantage).
Praise is powerful. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the majority of employees in America are running a praise deficit most of the time. And by “most” I mean all.
The Gallup organization conducts the Q12 assessment to measure engagement and one of the questions is this: “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work." Less than one in three Americans (that’s less than 33%) can strongly agree they’ve received any praise in the last seven days from a supervisor.
Less than one in three know whether or not they are doing a good job.
Assume you do get positive praise once every seven days. That would mean you get 52 compliments a year from someone with evaluative authority over your role.
Some people say, “I don’t need praise. It’s not that important to me.” Perhaps that’s true, although I doubt it. But even if it was, I’m not advocating a daily celebration of awesomeness – I’m suggesting that managers should be able to allot time to find one good thing their team members are doing each week and recognize it.
The payoff, by the way, is a 10-20% increase in productivity.
"Recognition is a short-term need that has to be satisfied on an ongoing basis -- weekly, maybe daily," says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist. "We can draw on our big accomplishments, but we reframe each day, every day."
So get out and praise.