It was the summer of 2000, and I was living my dream.
I was still in my early 20s, working for a large nonprofit in the heart of New York City, and I’d been appointed to lead a small team. I loved my job; I loved New York. Life was good.
But suddenly, everything changed.
My department manager, who had become a great mentor, suddenly left. He was replaced by “Jack,” the assistant. Jack was the complete opposite of our old boss: He seemed to always focus on the negative, and was extremely difficult to please.
I don’t think Jack hated us, but we felt that way sometimes–as he constantly pointed out our mistakes, never commending us for what we did right.
Many years later, I moved to Europe and began work as a consultant with a number of international companies. While conducting research on employee satisfaction and company culture, I surveyed dozens of professionals working in various fields, and I noticed one complaint repeated over and over:
I just don’t feel appreciated.
Many of the employees I interviewed said that their superiors were quick to let them know what they were doing wrong, but were almost never inclined to tell them what they were doing right.
Throughout the years, I’ve consulted with many companies, large and small. The topic of what makes up a great organizational culture is complex. But I strongly believe it begins with a single action:
Praise. Giving credit where credit is due. Telling someone: “Job well done.” Whatever you want to call it, people crave it–and they respond to it.
Think about it. How would you react if your superior said something like the following to you:
“Hey, _____________, do you have a minute? I’ve been meaning to tell you something. I know I don’t say this enough, but I really appreciate what you’re doing here. The way you handled that (project, client, problem)–it was great. I could really see your (specific quality you possess) in action, and how much it benefits the company.
Keep up the good work.”
Don’t mistake my point: My goal isn’t to encourage flattery, or praise just for the sake of praising. We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a shallow or superficial compliment–it just leaves us wondering: What are they trying to get out of me?
But everybody deserves praise for something. All of your people are talented in different ways; it’s your job to see those talents, and to bring out the best in them.
If you take the time to give employees realistic and positive reinforcement, i.e., sincere and authentic commendation for their efforts, you’ll experience the following benefits:
In contrast to Jack was Jack’s boss, Mr. Larson.
Mr. Larson (“Call me John,” he would say) was the managing director–and he had a much different reputation. Despite overseeing the work of about 300 people, he would come around to see each of us on our yearly “work anniversary.” He usually stuck around and chatted for about five to 10 minutes, amazing us with the personal interest he showed.
Somehow, he even managed to learn all of our names–greeting us by first name as we passed each other in the hallways. “How’s it going, Shelly?” “Great job on your presentation, Micah!”
Mr. Larson, um, John, also made himself available if we felt the need to speak with him. These “little things” meant a lot. He made us feel that our work was important to him.
We were important to him.
Takeaway: Do you want your team to jump through hoops of fire? It might mean a matter of just a few minutes a day, but I promise it will be time well spent.
Jack may have had a brash management style, but many managers suffer from the opposite problem:
They cringe at the thought of giving corrective feedback.
Erika Andersen, author of Growing Great Employees, put it this way in an article she penned for Forbes:
“Most often,” she writes, “we’re worried about the other person’s reaction: What if she gets angry? What if he cries? What if she tells me I’m an idiot? What if he gets super defensive and starts blaming me?”
The thing is, everyone needs correction. When your people don’t receive constructive criticism, they never reach their full potential. Even worse, they may end up losing their jobs without ever having an idea of what they were doing wrong.
But when we are in the habit of telling our employees how much we appreciate the good things they do, it becomes much easier to correct the bad things they do.
Takeaway: When you praise authentically and regularly, it gives you confidence to give corrective feedback when necessary.
You’ll know that your direction is balanced and reasonable–and in the best interests of both employee and company.
In contrast with fearing to give corrective feedback, I’ve witnessed a great number of “Jacks” running the show. Additionally, a number of employees I interviewed said that it was common for their team leaders and managers to spew out correction (even in a public setting), without ever giving commendation.
Morale, and productivity, naturally decline.
The fact is, no one wants to make mistakes or underperform. But when that’s the only message people hear, they lose motivation.
On the other hand, when your people are confident that you’ve “got their backs,” they’re more ready and willing to receive constructive criticism.
Takeaway: Regular and sincere commendation helps employees see that you’re on their side. They’ll see you as a mentor, instead of someone whose job is to come down on them.
So give some thought to your own style of leadership. When was the last time you told your team–as a group and the individuals themselves–that you appreciated them? Or told them specifically what you appreciate?
A few moments of sincere praise will pay rich dividends for you, your team, and your company.
By the way, my story has a happy ending. Remember Jack? He actually improved dramatically over the years we worked together. In the end, he became a great manager.
Want to know why? Because he learned from the great example that others set, others like Mr. Larson.
That’s the power of sincere and authentic praise:
It makes everybody better.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in real life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.