Power of authentic praise at the workplace

  • Living
  • Thursday, 01 Jun 2023

When praising an employee, it’s better to refer to the person’s responsibilities, characteristics and capabilities, rather than give a general remark like ‘Well done’ or ‘Good job’. Photo: dpa

It' a shame, but it sometimes comes more naturally to criticise people than to praise them. And many companies still seem to stick to the motto “no criticism is praise enough”, according to career counsellor Ragnild Struss.

That is a “gross mistake”, the Hamburg-based psychologist says, as an encouraging work environment can have a positive influence on such factors as sick leave, staff fluctuation, job satisfaction, health and, last but not least, workers’ performance. Studies have shown that effective praise can boost productivity by 20%.

According to German business psychologist Andreas Hemsing, this is not surprising.

“We are social creatures, we are dependent on feedback from our surroundings. And the workplace is the ideal spot for receiving feedback for one’s performance,” he says.

Be specific

But what is “effective” praise, exactly? “An off-hand “well done” isn’t enough,” Hemsing says. Instead, praise should be as concrete and personal as possible, by describing the actual success of the performance and specifically attributing it to the employee, he recommends.

Struss agrees that general remarks like “good job” won’t change much. When praising someone, it’s better to refer to individual responsibilities, characteristics and capabilities of the employee, she says.

An example: “I appreciate your training the new colleague with such care, as well as the empathy with which you participated in yesterday’s discussion.”

Another aspect that is important when praising others: The remarks should be genuine, says Struss. “Praise only comes across when it is authentic, and not given for strategic purposes,” the job psychologist says.

According to Hemsing, who is giving praise also plays a role. “For praise to have an effect on me, it must come from a person whom I consider to be relevant, whom I appreciate in some way or other,” he explains.

This doesn’t always have to be the supervisor – praise can also be effective when coming from co-workers considered to have a certain degree of experience and competence.

However, praise from a co-worker may occasionally also fall on deaf ears if we doubt their authority or sincerity, Hemsing says. In that case, he adds, praise can even have the opposite effect and elicit scepticism and rejection.

Avoid giving praise for external appearance

It may seem obvious but try to refrain from commenting on someone else’s appearance in the workplace, even if it’s meant as praise, according to Struss.

“Of course, it’s OK to tell your colleague that you like their outift,” the psychologist says. But you should generally try to avoid topics that have nothing to do with work, she adds, including a person’s figure, clothing or hairstyle.

“The boundary between professional contact and inappropriate comments is a fluid one,” Struss says.

Sometimes embarrassment is lurking where they are not even expected. Those who don’t want to touch any sore spots should refrain from making comments about appearance or mood when praising people in a professional context.

So, how to establish a positive culture of praise in your company or team?

“Above all, it’s about the management’s attitude towards the employees,” Hemsing said. In addition, it helps to create more opportunities for bringing employees and managers into regular dialogue. The classic annual performance review is not sufficient, the experts say, but the sit-down can be a starting point for a regular exchange.

Practise giving and receiving praise

Struss recommends an exercise that teams can practise together: Three or four people sit in a circle and speak appreciatively and favourably about one of the persons who is present. This helps everyone to learn to focus on what works well within the team and what they find admirable in their co-workers.

In addition, “the person who is being praised experiences not only the good feeling of being seen and appreciated. They also expand their own view of themselves, which unfortunately is often deficient,” Struss says.

This naturally raises the question of how we should respond when receiving genuine praise from a colleague or a boss. After all, while properly praising someone can be difficult, being able to receive praise confidently can also take some getting used to.

Responding with a curt “no big deal” or “goes without saying” is not the best option, according to Hemsing.

“Being coquettish and thereby self-deprecating only signals that you are seeking more feedback,” the psychologist says.

According to the psychologist, simply saying “thank you” is enough. – dpa/Katja Sponholz

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