If you asked a leader to tell you about a frustrating part of their role; there is no doubt that managing performance would rate highly on the list. It would be nice to lead a team of superstars with perfect behaviours, but clearly that is unrealistic. Employees are not perfect, and nor are leaders.

Being a manager means that you need to ensure all employees are meeting or exceeding targets. While some leaders see this as a great coaching challenge, others fall into the trap of criticising and displaying coercive leadership to get results. For some reason, it can feel more natural to criticise rather than praise as the bad habits and quirks of employees painfully stand out.

But what if critcising generated lower performance and praise positively fed your employee’s need for affirmation? There is no doubt that constructive criticism will always have its place, but without regular praise; employees can become disengaged and start resenting their leader.

Shifting the balance to praise more and criticise less

Do you know your ratio of praising to criticism? If you are unsure, you are not alone as many leaders would say that neither are a conscious decision. While there is no doubt that mistakes are more noticeable than seamless tasks, the theory is that when we ‘catch employees doing something right’ and praise that action; we are more likely to see an increase in performance.

Here are 3 tips to help leaders shift the scales in favour of praise:

1. Focus on progress, not perfection

If we decided to wait for perfection before we handed out praise, we might just be waiting an awfully long time. Criticism is based around employees missing the mark, not meeting expectations, or failing. When we shift our mindset to focus on the positives and the progress, we see that employees stop spinning their wheels and start kicking goals.

Sometimes, leaders will believe they have given praise, but all the employee heard was the negative. For example:

“I really liked the way that you focused on the product benefits when talking to the customer. Unfortunately, you still didn’t get the sale so keep working on it.

Instead, try to keep the praise focused on the positive and the progress. For example:

“I really liked the way that you focused on the product benefits when talking to the customer. I could tell that they were very interested and I’m confident that this will soon translate to fantastic results.”

2. Keep the praise positive

Sometimes, leaders with the right intent will give out ‘negative praise’ such as:

“That wasn’t a bad idea after all!”

or

“I didn’t think you would hit target; but well done for proving me wrong!”

This leader may feel that they have ‘praised’ their team member, but it has a negative connotation. Praise is not just about acknowledgement; it is important to be intentional about vocabulary and tone. The words that we chose and how we deliver them determine if the recipient feels affirmed.

Instead, the leader could have said:

“Your idea was extremely innovative, and it has shown strong merit.”

or

“Your sales effort this quarter has reached a new standard that I have not seen in this team.”

3. Keep the praise focused on the employee

When giving praise, a common trap is to focus on the element that pleases you, rather than the employee’s skill. For example:

“I loved your report”

This example lets the recipient know that their report was enjoyed, but it does not provide any insight into why it was great. Instead, the leader could have said:

“I found your report to be extremely well researched and balanced with the issues we are currently facing. The level of data provided will enable us to build a clear business case for more funding.”

In this example, the recipient understands specifically why they are being praised and are more likely to repeat the behaviour.

Positive performance management concentrates on preserving self-esteem and building confidence. This is the platform for people to show what they can really do. You may be surprised what employees can achieve when they receive such positive support even when things go wrong.

Praise is a strong motivator

Take a moment to reflect back on a time when your leader criticised your performance. Chances are you did not find yourself skipping up the office stairs the next morning. Whilst the theory ‘feedback is a gift’ may have merit, if criticism is the only ‘gift’ your team members are unwrapping, there is every chance that it is counterproductive and disengaging.

The best leaders have the feedback scales balanced just right and are proactive in delivering consistent, specific, and well-timed praise to team members. They understand that praise is only effective when it is authentic and provided with the right intent. Importantly, they also understand the value of praising the quiet achievers and those who consistently deliver. Sure, it may seem like an ego stroke, but helping your talent know their efforts are valued is a key engagement and retention hook that pays dividends.

Further information

Ai Group has extensive tools and resources to support employers in the art of effective feedback and performance management. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.