5 ‘praise erasers’ reveal how bosses undermine positive feedback

Who among you gets too much feedback at work? I’ve asked this question of groups time and again, always with the same result: No hands go up.

Even when people believe they are micromanaged by their bosses, they don’t consider the micromanagement to be feedback. To them, it’s just continuous direction or correction. It’s not the kind of helpful feedback that lets them know where they stand, how to improve, and what they are doing well.

I’ve addressed the feedback deficit before, even offered ways in which managers can double the amount of feedback they provide staff. Still, those who offer more feedback may not be delivering it effectively. Worse yet, they may be undermining their own words.

Especially when it comes to praise.

Many bosses already recognize that praise shouldn’t be vague and drive-by. It should be sincere and specific. But in working with countless bosses, I’ve discovered there’s more to keep in mind when praising employees for a job well done: Don’t erase your praise by the way in which you deliver it.

I’ve identified 5 “Praise Erasers” that undercut a well-intentioned message.

1. Praise that smacks of control. Ever get the feeling that someone is praising you, just to remind you that he or she is in charge? It sounds like this:

“There you go! I told you if you followed my suggestions you’d get better results. Good job.”

or

“I like your report. Sharp colors. That’s just the way I want my people to do things around here.”

Remember that one of the key intrinsic motivators for people is autonomy — a sense of independence and control over their own decisions. Compare the controlling praise to this non-controlling option:

“I really like the color combination you chose for that design. How did you come up with that idea?”

The difference: it’s a reinforcement of the employee’s ownership of the idea, so much so that the boss can learn from the staffer.

2. Praise that is condescending. “Talking down” is in the ear of the beholder. The likelihood can increase when the beholder differs in age, experience, gender or ethnicity from the boss. It can be triggered by the use of “cute” appellations or by a message that suggests the boss is surprised by the employee’s success.

“That’s my girl; You’re really catching on, honey.”

or

“Wow. Who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks? Nice work!”

Simply put: people don’t want to feel you’re patting them on the head like a small child or well-trained pet.

3. Praise that is self-involved. If you’re going to praise a person, keep the focus on that person, not on you. Don’t sound like this:

“Great story. I was so glad to see you focus on a neighborhood in transition. Back in 1999, I won an award for a story I did on gentrification. Let me tell you about how I did it …”

This doesn’t mean you can’t connect your experiences with those of your employees. Often you have great lessons to teach. But watch your emphasis and proportion. How much of the conversation is really focused on the staffer and how much on you?

4. Praise that is bait-and-switch. When praise is a prelude to a request for more work, it can seem like empty flattery.

“Super job on those protest photos. Here are three more locations I need you to cover now.”

You can’t always decouple praise and future assignments, but make certain to enrich that applause with sufficient detail. Otherwise, the employee hears it only as a cheap trick to start a conversation about other work, not sincere positive feedback.

5. Praise with a big “but.” I call this “Big But Syndrome” and it afflicts workplaces everywhere. The presence of the word “but” in a sentence is guaranteed to erase everything that comes before it.

“Nice work on the multimedia presentation, but the natural sound was spotty.”

What part of that message do you think the recipient DIDN’T hear? It was the good part that had no specifics, followed by the negative news that erased the positive.

An easy improvement:

“Nice work on the multimedia presentation. The timing and captions were perfectly coordinated. The focus on one person’s experience really worked. And next time, I bet we can get that natural sound to flow perfectly. What can we try?”

The simple substitution of the word “and” can make a difference. So can providing specifics to illustrate the positive message, along with framing the negative part with a future focus. When you say “next time,” it reminds the person that there’s opportunity ahead.

So, as you do your part to address the feedback deficit in today’s workplaces, remember two key pieces of advice. Don’t put off the difficult conversations with employees who must improve. And don’t let your positive comments lose their power because of those all-too-common praise erasers.

It’s easy to erase praise, but you can also enhance it. I’ll share a key “praise enhancer” in this companion podcast:  “What Great Bosses Know about 5 Praise Erasers.”

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