I love encouraging people. It brings me incredible joy to give someone a pat on the back for doing excellent work. Frankly, I think we all suffer from withholding praise too often. But during the first few months of being a manager, I found myself dishing out praise more often than I ought.
You see, I was pulled from within a team to lead that same team -- I was now managing and mentoring former peers. I didn't catch it at first, but suddenly, a sudden need for validation quickly rose within me -- I desperately wanted these guys to appreciate and respect me.
Without thinking, I found myself gushing over every little thing my team was doing. It started simply enough: "Great job on that project!" but evolved into me practically falling over myself to point out someone's good work. "Kudos for that well-informed email!" or "Wow! What an incredible single line of code! You're a genius!" By themselves, these bits of encouragement were probably fine, but I was getting out of control and the team began to see through me. My plan began to backfire as I realized that all this praise was making my team distrust me.
Thankfully, a mentor of mine helped me clean up my act. The key for me was to realize the root of the problem was my desire to be validated as my team's leader. This was driving my erratic behavior. Thankfully, I mellowed out a bit and learned a few key concepts for encouraging and rewarding those on my team.
1. Praise Should Be Consistent
Taking a look back at this crazy season, I found myself praising different people for different things. I expected the same level of excellence from each person, yet I found myself praising one person for quality work, and another for shoddy work. In retrospect, I think I found it easier to praise the people whom I most needed the validation from.
Being consistent with your praise helps your team know where the line is between average and excellent work.
2. Praise Should Be Specific
Praise is incredibly powerful in solidifying behavior you want to see repeated. Your team wants to know that they're doing a good job, and you can use praise to let them know they're on the right track. But be careful to give someone a high-five without giving them much detail. Go the extra step in providing clarity around exactly what it was that you're proud of. Don't simply say "Great job on that presentation". Tell them why: "Great job! You were very well-spoken, well-prepared, and you spoke slowly and patiently. Keep it up!"
3. Praise Should Be Balanced
Constantly doling out praise without ever correcting behavior is a recipe for disaster. Here's a key thing to remember: that problematic teammate? Your team knows there's an issue long before you do. And by not dealing with the elephant in the room, your team will begin to think you approve of the behavior. Bite the bullet, deal with the issue, and move on. They (and your team) will thank you for it later. (And it makes future successes all the more rewarding)
4. Praise Should Be Public
You may have heard this adage before, but without the first three points above, this one can easily backfire on you. Imagine yourself publicly praising the same guy over and over, while his teammates know you're avoiding correcting a destructive behavior. Or publicly praising someone else while everyone knows his work was shoddy. Public praise can be huge in showing the team what work gets rewarded, but make sure you know exactly the message you're sending before you pop that champagne.
It's a little embarrassing to admit to failing at such a simple thing like appropriately praising your team. I'd guess most people don't suffer from "my boss gushes over me too much" syndrome. But it's the little things like this that can make or break the level of trust on a team.
Praise often, for the right things, and at the right time.