3 reasons to regularly praise staff members during transformation

One of the simplest and most effective ways to change an organisation’s culture comes hard to many leaders in the news business: Praising successful pursuit of your goals.

When I used to lead my Kindling the Flame workshop for the American Press Institute, I would survey both the leaders attending the workshop and their staffs in advance of the workshop, asking the same questions about the participants’ leadership.

Invariably, the widest gap between the scores the leaders gave themselves and the scores their staff members gave was how frequently the leader delivered specific praise to staff members.

On a scale of 1 to 5, the average scores were nearly always a full point or more apart. An editor who delivers a lot of praise might give herself a 5, and the staff’s rating would be a 4. Or an editor who doesn’t bother much with praise might score himself at 2, while the staff would give him 1s.

That doesn’t mean anyone was lying, just that giving and receiving praise feel differently and that a supervisor delivering praise to several staff members is aware of all that praise, while each staffer is generally aware of only the praise she receives.

On a few occasions when we were discussing the results of the surveys, editors voiced a view I had heard before in my career: I don’t praise people simply for doing their jobs.

That’s a dangerous attitude at any time. My survey also showed that leaders who didn’t praise staff members also failed to inspire them and that their staffs were unclear about the goals they were supposed to be pursuing.

When your organisation is facing serious challenges and trying to change your culture, specific praise from bosses grows in importance. Here are three reasons why you (and other managers in your organisation) need to praise staff members regularly:

  1. Confidence: As they face new challenges, workers’ confidence falters. They knew they were good at what they used to do, and maybe your praise didn’t have much impact with confident or even cocky workers.

    But when employees take on new skills and tasks, specific praise helps them gain confidence.

  2. Clarity: As your organisation’s priorities change and you expect new skills and tasks from your staff, praise helps reinforce your priorities. Praise people for the things that are important to you, and they will know what matters.

    Without feedback, they might think you aren’t serious about new priorities, or they might become confused about how you want to pursue them. Praise reinforces goals and lets people know when they are meeting your new expectations.

  3. Reward: There’s a good chance you haven’t been able to give the raises that your staff deserves in recent years, if you’ve been able to give any raises at all. And you may have increased demands on staff members who have survived cutbacks.

    Until your organisation succeeds at growing revenue, you can’t give your staff the kind of rewards they want, need, and deserve. Praise is free, but precious. Spend it generously.

    It doesn’t make up for the lack of pay raises, but it’s an important expression of value that doesn’t bust your budget. You may have to be stingy with the company’s money, but don’t be stingy with praise.

Some simple tips for using praise to change your organisation’s culture:

  • Be clear and consistent in stating both organisational goals and individual goals. State them in writing and aloud in meetings as well as in conversations.

  • Deliver praise primarily for work in pursuit of your goals. Praise says what’s important, so your praise should support your goals.

    Change might be challenging for you, too, and you might be in the habit of praising more traditional work. Make sure your praise matches the current goals you have stated to the staff.

  • Make your praise specific. “Good coverage of Saturday's football game” is vague and not helpful. It may even sound insincere. And it might not match up with your goals.

    “Nice job of curating the fans’ tweets and photos during the game; you brought dozens of people from the community into our game coverage that way” tells a staff member what was good about Saturday’s work and does a better job of reinforcing goals, such as strengthening community engagement.

  • No phony praise. Only praise what staff members are doing well. You need to deal with the things people aren’t doing well. But if no one on your staff genuinely deserves praise, you need to examine a range of other issues: training, expectations, assignments, motivation, leadership, etc.

  • Make praise a daily priority. Some things get done every day, no matter how busy your day gets: You update the Web site, promote content in social media, make deadline (if you have a daily newspaper), do the evening newscasts (if you have a television station), attend daily meetings.

    Praise needs to be one of those things you get done every single day. It might work best to put it on the schedule early in your workday, before the day starts to get away from you.

  • Remember, even specific praise doesn’t take long. The hypothetical quote above takes less than 10 seconds. Keep the task brief and you’ll always be able to make time for it.

  • Praise in person. If you work in the same location, you should deliver praise face-to-face most of the time. It means a lot to hear the praise directly from the boss, with some meaningful eye contact.

    If a person works in a remote office or is out of the office when you want to deliver the praise, try picking up the phone. You don’t have the eye contact, but hearing from the boss also carries impact.

  • Praise in writing. While you should deliver some praise in person every day, you do need to be efficient. So a quick text message, social media message, or e-mail will suffice at times, especially if you or the target of your praise is on the run that day.

    And for something really outstanding, a handwritten note is especially meaningful (the worker will probably save it). An e-mail carboning the top boss — publisher, editor, sales director — means a lot, too. E-mail shouldnt be your primary way to praise, but it belongs in your praise toolbox.

  • Praise publicly. Most of your praise should be one-to-one. But when a team or the whole staff excels, or when an individual staff member’s success is extraordinary, public praise might be appropriate (either a staff e-mail or a stand-in-the-middle-of-the-office moment).

About Steve Buttry

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