Motivating Employees With Praise

by: Abdul Rahman Deen

Studies in organisational behavior and management indicate that an employee’s performance is dependent upon his or her ability and motivation, underlining the importance of employee motivation in the success of any organisation. Consequently, the challenge of motivating employees to perform to the best of their anility has been recognized as a manager’s primary task and an integral part of his or her responsibilities.

The root word of motivation is “motive” suggesting that the process of motivating a person to engagein a particular behavior is basically to give the person a good motive or reason to do so. Hence if I motivate my son to study hard by promising him a reward of a trip to Singapore if he achieves excellent result in his examinations, essentially what I have done, is to give him reasons to put in the extra effort and study harder. The challenge then, is for managers to identify and provide appropriate reasons that are important to the individuals concerned.

Research on work-motivation has spawned many theories that have been categorized as reinforcement theories, content theories and process theories. The reinforcement theories postulates that the probability of a particular behavior being repeated or not would depend on the consequences of that behaviour. In other words, the perceived consequence is the reason why the individual either repeats or avoids a particular behaviour in the future.

One very powerful reason that can elicit desired behavior and act as a positive reinforcement that unfortunately managers do not use often enough is PRAISE. Peter Black, a noted journalist and TV critic wrote:

“I am very fond of praise, by which I mean a compliment that the receiver knows is earned. As a lubricant and a stimulant, praise is so undervalued. Is it the ingredient that supplies motivation and power. It is the distilled water that tops up the flat batteries of life, but there is not enough of it about…”

Similarly, General Smuts of the US army once said: “Praise can bring the color of the drabbest of lives, it can make a life worth living and help a man to succeed.” Several bestsellers in the field of management have sold the virtues of praise. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s “ONE MINUTE MANAGER” has the simple message: ‘one minute praising’ can do wonders to uplift the spirit of workers. In another management classic “GUNG HO”, Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles discuss the importance of congratulations and cheering each other as a surefire way to boost employee enthusiasm, productivity and performance in an organisation.

In their book “HOW FULL IS YOUR BUCKET”, co-authors Tom Rath and Don Clifton says that there are twenty thousand moments in a given day to make our interactions with others positive emotions.
Consider the following fact presented by Shary Hauer in her article “Have You Said Your Praise Today?”:

The number one reason people leave their jobs: They don’t feel appreciated. Sixty-five percent of employees received no recognition in the work place (this was in USA, it could be much higher here in Malaysia).

Praise is powerful because people have an inherent need to be appreciated. Praise satisfies the higher order needs of ego and self-actualization as identified by Abraham Maslow in his theory on the hierarchy of needs.
The Executive Chairman of a local company believes that showing appreciation and recognizing contribution are the foundation for building a positive human relation with his staff. “If we do not acknowledge the extra effort or special consideration that others have made for us and show our appreciation with a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘terima kasih’ they may have feel that their efforts are taken for granted and will be disappointed. It is the same when they do something well. If we don’t recognize their achievement, they will be disappointed. Every manager must know the significance of saying ‘thank you’ and ‘syabas’. Doing so connect us positively with what they have done and themselves.”

However, do not make the mistake of thinking that any praise is good praise. Indiscriminate use of praise would be counter-productive. Here are some guidelines on using praise:

  • Praise with a purpose.
    The purpose of praise is to improve employee morale and productivity, not to get the
    employees to like the manager.
  • Target your praise.
    Be very specific. Do not say “Ahmad, you are doing a great job”. Instead, be more focused and
    say “Ahmad, you did a great job in preparing our new work schedule.”
  • Be sincere.
    Praise is not flattery – flattery is lying. Praise must be given sincerely and only when it is
    justified. Insincere praise may cause you to lose your credibility.
  • Praise in proportion.
    Praising an employee too frequently waters down the praise; on the other hand, praising too
    little is also not effective. Some employees may require more praise than others. The manager
    needs to understand the employee and use discretion is giving praise.
  • Don’t praise the employee, praise their works or abilities.
    Instead of saying “you are a brilliant person”, sat “that was a brilliant speech” or “you are a
    very talented speaker.” By doing so, we do not judge the person but his actions.

Providing genuine and sincere praise is not difficult and does not cost much. All levels of managers can give it and all levels of employees seek it. However, do not assume that praise alone is enough. Excellent performance over time deserves more than just compliments. Praise loses its value if that is all that the employees ever get. Meaningful goals, supportive leadership, challenging and interesting job assignments, equitable pay, bonuses and other form of rewards to recognize and appreciate superior performance are also necessary.