How to Harness the Power of Praise

By Ron Kaufman

Some managers claim the best way to motivate staff is through the wallet: increase pay, expand allowances or give more cash incentives. While money is certainly useful, it is not the only key to human motivation. In the current economic climate, learning how to harness the power of praise also enables you to reward and retain staff without putting a big dent in your budget.

Sincere recognition can mean a lot more to your staff than just another dollar in the bank. A genuine pat on the back, given at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons – and in front of the right people – will boost staff morale and commitment in ways that money never will.

Make a difference with these four steps to building the long-term morale of your team.

1. Learn from everyone’s mistakes: Before rewarding people for a job well done, assure your staff they won’t be crucified if things end up poorly. In an environment of challenge and growth, people must try things they’ve never done before. And they will make mistakes. In a healthy and rewarding culture, people are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, and then quickly regroup and rebuild.

You should work with employees to understand what went wrong, rectify the situation and then improve the approach. Attack the problem, not the people involved. Ask your team aloud: ‘What can be learned from this mistake? What can be improved? Who else should we inform so they can benefit from the learning, too?’ Many companies have rituals for celebrating success and achievements, and that’s good. But it’s the mistake no one hears about (and others blindly repeat) that can pull you to the bottom.

Start your next meeting by sharing the biggest mistake you’ve made in the past two weeks. Explain what you learned from the experience. Then ask others for their ideas, listen to feedback and thank those who offer their opinions. By taking the lead and sharing your mistakes, you will demonstrate a willingness to learn and encourage a culture of sharing and honest communication.

What about staff who make no mistakes? Either they are very good at hiding what is really going on or they are not being challenged enough. The person who only makes small, safe and bureaucratic moves does not innovate or grow. In today’s turbulent markets, this is not what you need to succeed.

2. Make appraisal criteria clear: Make sure your staff understands how they will be appraised for raises, bonuses and promotions. Whether you evaluate yearly or monthly, openly or behind closed doors, in writing or in dialogue, one-way, two-way or 360 degrees, your staff must clearly understand the criteria for their evaluation.

Introduce your standards of appraisal during the initial hiring process, explain it again during new employee orientation, and clarify the process consistently in staff meetings, newsletters and executive forums. After you have published these ‘rules of the game’, keep the playing field fair. Meritocracy demands unprejudiced assessment. Nothing dooms staff morale faster than watching an incompetent who ‘takes care of the boss’ move up the ladder while capable staff languish in mediocre positions.

Ask yourself: ‘Are the criteria for staff evaluations made clear? Are they openly explained and discussed so that all parties can achieve and succeed? Is the process of evaluation fair-minded?’ If your answers are yes, keep moving forward. If your answers are no or maybe, tackle those issues now. If you are not sure of the answers, check with those whose opinions really count: your staff. Conduct a survey, take a poll, ask for immediate feedback.

But be forewarned: If the staff says your system of appraisal is unclear or less than fair, you’d better be ready to change it. Even more discouraging than an unfair process of evaluation is an unfair process of evaluation that persists after the staff have given you their honest opinions about it.

3. Encourage career development: Make sure the conversation about career development is always open. Provide high performing staff members with a boss, mentor, counselor or human resource person who cares about their professional growth and personal well-being.

Show you care about your staff members’ future possibilities and potential, not just their current results and past achievements. Help the staff understand the competencies required for a more successful future. Chart career progressions that are achievable and realistic.

Provide easy access to courses, seminars and conferences. Subscribe to useful publications and circulate them to your team. Share websites, e-zines and articles of interest. Build a library of books, catalogues, CDs, videos and other career-building resources.

Create opportunities for learning without spending money outside your organization by cross-training staff inside. Use team rosters and re-assignments to integrate neighboring departments. Create cross-departmental teams to work on cross-functional projects. Put these career development plans into action and watch your staff’s confidence – and competence – grow.

4. Create powerful rewards and meaningful recognition: Tailor your in-house reward and recognition programs to reinforce the company culture. Most rewards are handed down from the top: management praises staff, supervisor recognizes team member, boss applauds the workers. Why stop there? Start a ‘Bottom-Up’ award for staff to recognize their leaders. You set the budget, but allow staff to select the winners, the reasons for winning and the appropriate awards.

Harness positive ‘peer pressure’ on a group and individual basis. Ask each department or team to select and publicly recognize another group for their effort, improvement or support. This encourages cross-functional appreciation, understanding and cooperation.

Ask each staff member to nominate one or two role models from among their peers. Ask for specific reasons supporting each nomination. Then praise the role models and publicize the specific reasons to reinforce those values and behaviors.

Invite customers to participate in your staff recognition programs. Put easy-to-use nomination forms at key points of customer contact. Set up a hotline for customers to call with compliments or complaints.

And get your suppliers involved, too. Query them by phone, e-mail or in person. Thank them for their votes and send them a copy of the praise you will share with your staff.

And finally, remember to reward the rewarders! Provide recognition for managers who excel at recognizing the members of their team.

Use these four steps to conduct a ‘recognition audit’ inside your organization. List all the ways your people get appreciated, noticed and rewarded. Sort into categories: individual and group, financial and non-financial, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, from managers and peers, from customers and suppliers, privately and in public, lavishly and simply, in writing and in person, long running awards and brand new awards.

If a category is empty or shallow, get creative with your team and fill them up!

It takes energy and commitment to deliver consistently uplifting service. Praise is the spark that lights the fire. Frequent recognition is the fuel that keeps the fire burning. Use plenty of both to keep the climate warm for staff – and the customers they serve.

Read other articles and learn more about Ron Kaufman.

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