Learning to deliver praise at the office [Commentary]

And learning to accept praise

August 22, 2014|Susan Reimer

"Josh" is an attorney in the federal government who finds out from one of those dreaded staff surveys that the lawyers working for him aren't feeling the love.

They don't think their hard work is appreciated, but he always lets them know when they screw up. The people working under him don't much like his management style.

It's no surprise that Josh gets defensive and then disdainful. "Grown-up lawyers shouldn't expect to be thanked for just doing excellent work," he said. "They get paid, don't they?"

He ends up in the office of Bev Jones, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, career coach and founder of Clearways Consulting. She is my friend, and she was my life coach before there was such a thing. Now she does it for others.

Bev tries to convince Josh otherwise with studies that demonstrate our need for affirmation and surveys that show that workers are more productive in a positive work environment. Josh doesn't appear to be convinced, so Bev challenges him to a small experiment.

Put three coins in your pocket, she says. Transfer one to the other pocket every time you thank or compliment a co-worker. And you can't go home until you have used all three coins.

Josh told Bev that he was enjoying the experiment, but was still feeling awkward. So he began "practicing" thank yous at home and on weekends when he was out and about.

The results are transformative for Josh, and Bev writes about the experience in Bev's Blog at clearwaysconsulting.com. In her post, she includes some helpful tips about how to deliver praise:

Be sincere, otherwise you sound creepy. Vague thank yous aren't effective. Calibrate your thank yous. Over the top can seem fake and be embarrassing. Engage. Make eye contact and listen to any response. Don't forget the power of the hand-written note. Don't just praise employees during annual reviews. Surprise them.

Why was it so hard for Josh to learn to deliver praise? Bev told me that she sees many highly accomplished clients who feel awkward hearing praise and feel awkward giving it. She thinks it has to do with a preoccupation with self.

"Some people are accomplished and work really hard toward their goals," she said. "When they move up in leadership, it is hard to shift their focus from themselves to their team members.

"It is so simple really," she said of saying thank you. "But it is the tip of a really big iceberg. If you can do one thing to change the way you engage with other people, it might be to focus on someone else. It is a terrific way to reframe the way you engage and manage yourself."

The lawyer in her anecdote practiced on his family and she said that is a good place to start. We don't spend much effort being kind to the people we live with, but it is still easier than at the office.

And you might reap some benefits, too. "Research suggests that taking the time to feel grateful can actually reduce your anxiety. Saying kind words to others can feel very good," Bev says.

There is a flip side to delivering praise with sincerity, and that is accepting it graciously. Bev says a blog post she wrote on that topic was by far the most popular on her blog. It seems few of us know how to respond to kind words.

Deflecting complements with modesty — as many of us automatically do — drains the energy from what should be a positive moment, Bev says. Not only does the boss go away thinking perhaps you didn't deserve the praise after all, but you have also denied yourself the benefits a compliment can bring.

"Your first step after hearing a compliment is to pause for an instant, and get the full value of the moment," she writes.

"When you do open your mouth to respond, you have two goals: to reinforce the positive evaluation that led to the compliment, and at the same time to make the giver feel good."

Ignore the voice inside your head telling you that you really don't deserve praise. Show your pleasure in having done a job well and then say thanks, is Bev's advice.

If these seem like playground lessons, all the better. Saying nice things and accepting kind words really should be easy.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Tuesdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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