And more on happiness at work…making employees feel special

And more on happiness at work…making employees feel special

The Office: Damned with Faint Praise

Great managers know when and how to lavish praise on their workers

By Leigh Buchanan |  Sep 15, 2009 

To see the original article at Inc. Com – click here


In 1990, anxious to rejoin the workforce after an unconvincing cameo appearance as housewife and mother, I took a copy-editing job with a technology publication. I was clearly overqualified for the position (she remarked humbly) and within a few months I was writing short articles, ghostwriting columns, and performing top-to-bottom overhauls of full-length pieces. One of the magazine_ã_s senior editors produced particularly opaque and turgid prose that required exhaustive rewriting just to determine that it made no sense. I would spend days taking down his harum scarum edifices brick by crumbling brick and rebuilding them into elegant and informative structures.

Not that the editor wasn_ã_t grateful. Whenever I finished with one of his pieces he would come by my office to thank me. _ã–I realized when I was driving home last night that I misspelled the word _ãÄubiquitous,_ã_ he would say. _ã–Great work catching that._㝠Or: _ã–I can_ã_t believe I used a comma instead of a semicolon twice in the lead. You really saved me from myself on that one._ã

Most bosses enjoy delivering praise, but some aren_ã_t very good at it. The most effective praise is specific and directly reflects the praisee_ã_s actual achievement. Telling Margo she does great work is less meaningful (for Margo anyway) than telling her she did great work salvaging the Moriarity account. Employees are acutely aware of what they have done well and take pride in it. Receiving praise that diminishes or sidesteps that achievement can be worse than receiving no praise at all.

Sometimes a boss will damn with faint praise for nefarious reasons. Consider my former nemesis. The charitable interpretation of his behavior is self-delusion. In order to sustain his undeserved self-esteem he needed to believe that more than 10% of the product going out under his byline was actually his work, and I had been assigned a role in this fantasy. Less charitably (and more likely), the guy was well aware how much I had done but didn_ã_t want anyone else to know. By creating a fiction that minimized my contribution and getting me to accede to it (_ã–You_ã_re welcome,_㝠I would say, my spine liquefying beneath my shirt) he reduced the risk of my ratting him out to the Powers That Be. _ã–Let_ã_s get our stories straight,_㝠he seemed to imply. _ã–I am Content Guy, and you are my humble sidekick, Comma Girl. Don_ã_t get above yourself._ã

More often, however, leaders praise poorly because they lack information about what is praiseworthy. I congratulate all graduates of the 12-step program for micromanagers. But be aware: as you spend more time at 30,000 feet you no longer see what Carl in operations and Andrea in marketing do all day. And of course when work is team-based, even the brightest star disappears within the larger constellation. Praising a whole team promotes collaboration, which is important. But if one or two contributions far exceed the rest, recognizing those outliers encourages others to match their performance.

The easiest way to identify exemplary performance is to make managers responsible for passing along good news about their direct reports. Acquire enough detail that when you bestow your encomium the employee knows you fully appreciate her genius/resourcefulness/leadership ability/dedication. And encourage others to report above-and-beyond activities as well. If an HR rep helps a frantic employee line up first-rate child-care and the CEO never hears about it, does the rep_ã_s good work make a sound?

Remember: you can_ã_t be too rich, too thin, or too specific. No one wants a pat on the head just for showing up.