Take the ‘Threshold Test’ as you cross into the new year at work

As we cross the threshold from off-duty to on-the-clock when entering our workplaces, we ask ourselves, “How much do I matter here? Is my work respected? Am I growing and learning? Do my ideas make a difference?”

I call those questions the “Threshold Test.”

Even the most highly qualified contributors in an organization ask themselves those questions. It’s human nature to want to know where we stand.

Too often, the very people who could answer these unasked questions and enlighten us, don’t. Managers miss opportunities to engage because they fail to deliver feedback that is sincere, specific and ongoing. Many are more focused on products than people. They are quick to point out flaws because they know their job is to protect the organization and those it serves from mistakes and missteps. But they’re less adept at positive reinforcement for people who truly deserve it.

Here are some reasons.

Some bosses say, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you are doing a good job.”

While they may think they’ve put people at ease, I believe it really means,“Consider my neglect a compliment.” (And shudder when you see me coming your way!)

Some managers announce, “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to do. I praise superior performance.”

In so doing, they miss reinforcing the good work employees deliver each day. Should people really have to astound us with brilliance or breakthroughs in order to earn applause from the boss? How about encouragement when they’re tired or challenged, acknowledgement of genuine effort, and pats on the back for being reliable and professional?

Too often, supervisors erase their own praise.

In my book, “Work Happy, What Great Bosses Know,” I devote several chapters to effective feedback and specifically warn against “Praise Erasers.”

  • They include praise that smacks of control:“See, you did it my way and it’s better.”
  • Or praise that’s condescending: “Gotta love my geek. Always there with the tech solution for me.” 
  • How about praise that’s self-involved: “Great job. Reminds me of a sale I closed two years ago.” 
  • Or praise that’s bait-and-switch: “Loved the way you handled that customer. Hey, I have three projects here for you.”

And then there’s the killer Praise Eraser I call “Big But Syndrome.”

We’ve all heard it. “Nice job, but…” I always remind the managers I teach and coach that the word “but” erases all the words that come before it. Consider de-coupling praise and criticism when possible. When you can’t…well, (shameless plug alert) check out the all options I share in my book or in my free iTunes U “What Great Bosses Know” podcasts.

Employees want feedback. Employers don’t necessarily give it – or give it well. Some are too nice to have a tough talk. Some praise ineffectively. Here’s the good news for employee engagement. Managers can improve their feedback skills. And feedback, as valuable as it is to engagement, is free. Tough economic times may take away the pay and perks we’d like to increase, but at no cost at all, feedback is priceless.

Think about that the next time you cross the threshold to work, leaders. Whose engagement have you fed today?

A version of this post was previously published on the “Switch & Shift” blog.

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