By Bill Hellkamp
Have you ever had the agony of working for a critical boss? One who was able and eager to discover and point out every mistake that was made by one of the team members? I am happy to report that I have been able to avoid this during my career. However, I have worked with teams and organization that had to endure this type of person every day. I recall one tyrant in particular. Charlie was the overnight leader of a production facility. He ruled with an iron fist through intimidation and reproach. I had heard about him long before I actually met him and the stories were woeful. It seemed that nobody liked Charlie and they looked for opportunities to defy him whenever his back was turned. When he and I finally met for a coaching session, I asked him about his management style and why he thought it was effective. “Look,” he said to me, “my job is to tell them what to do and their job is to get it done. They get paid to do this work and I expect them to do it correctly and quickly. I don’t need anyone to tell me I’ve done a good job. I know it by my results and they should too. I’ll tell them when they screw up so they can do it right the next time and they know that if I’m not yelling at them they are doing OK.” Even though the production of his shift was the lowest in the organization, I wasn’t able to coach Charlie to change his style to employ more praise. I believe this was because the company implicitly supported his methods by allowing them to continue, despite their public policy of caring about and listening to their employees.
What is it that causes a leader to believe that public ridicule and verbal abuse are effective management techniques? Through conversations with Charlie and others like him, I have noticed some common views. For many of these people, they have extremely high personal standards, standards that even they seldom reach, and so they project these standards on others and berate them when they aren’t attained (as they internally berate themselves). Other managers such as this believe that they get better results from their team through the use of negative coaching. The theory is that I will point out to you all of the things you do wrong, you will correct those things, and then you will be perfect (like me). What these philosophies don’t take into account is the reality that people need encouragement and praise to build their personal belief and so that they don’t lose hope. Through the coaching I’ve done with hundreds of clients and the work I have done with leaders, I know that praise is a powerful motivator and a builder of team unity. But praise shouldn’t become a way to manipulate people, albeit in a positive way. It should be given sincerely and with a desire to do the best for the person who is being praised. With that in mind, here are some tips for constructive praising.
1. Give Specific Examples – General praise can seem vague and hollow to the person who is receiving it. To make it more meaningful, give a specific example. “Mary, when you helped Steve complete the Anderson project on time, it showed what a great team player you are.”
2. Catch Them in the Act – Isn’t it easy to immediately correct people when we see them doing something wrong? It must be the dissonant nature of the act and our desire for harmony that makes it so natural to catch people doing something wrong. Well you can do the same thing when someone is doing something right! Statistically you should have many more opportunities since your staff is likely doing much more correct than they are incorrect. You just have to be willing to notice it and say something to them – right away.
3. Include Your Feelings to Make it Personal – If you really want the praise to be significant, tell them how it made you feel. Some great words to use: proud, happy, appreciate, trust, contribute, gratified, impressed, and pleased. Of course, you are welcome to use your own feelings to guide you!
4. The Poorest Performers May Need The Most Praise – Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your substandard performers don’t know that they are not meeting requirements. Quite often the poor attitude that they project is a shield against the disparaging remark they hear others make about their performance. For example, “I don’t even like this job, so what do I care if I do good or not.” If you want to reengage these people, you might try catching them doing something right and mentioning it to them. Dale Carnegie calls this “Give a dog a good name”. You may find that he or she will try to live up to your better expectations.
5. Build a Praising Culture – As with anything new, praising your team members can be uncomfortable for you and strange to them. You might find that your early efforts are shucked off as insincere or just another leadership “fad”. But if you do it consistently, you will see positive changes in your staff and the way they deal with you and each other. The trust level of your organization will increase along with productivity and creativity. And you will know it’s working when your team begins to praise one another – and you.