In my last Resilience Update, I described how effective praise can powerfully alter a child’s willingness to try harder, even at things they are not good at. Effective praise focuses on the way the child achieves the happy outcome. Ineffective praise focuses only on the happy outcome, or on the child himself or herself, and can even be dangerous!

An example of effective praise, focussing on the process of what the child does, is: “It’s really good to see how you kept on trying and didn’t give up”, rather than the ineffective version: ”Good work!” or “Good girl!”.

What about adults at work?

I received some questions from readers asking if this also applied to adults at work. The answer is that it does, with amazing productivity increases of 30% to 40% when a leader consistently gives effective praise!

Unfortunately with adults, as with children, there is good and bad praise. To illustrate the difference, which of the following would you rather receive?

  1. “You really analysed the process data carefully which enabled you to spot the mistake we all missed”
  2. “You are the best in the team – so smart and clever!”

Most people prefer the first comment, saying that it sounds sincere because it specifically describes the behaviour that lead to success. In contrast, the second comment feels insincere because it’s general and very personal.

Interestingly, some people even say that the second comment makes them worry that they might not live up to that standard next time. That worry could lead to them becoming reluctant to undertake challenging tasks the next time, preferring rather to stick to tasks they know they can do well.  This is precisely why general, personal and outcome praise can lead to unintended dangerous consequences.

So how do you ensure your praise is felt as genuine and sincere?

The answer is to describe what the person did, and what that lead to, rather than be general or very personal.

At work, it may feel more acceptable to think about effective praise as giving positive feedback. After all, the purpose of positive feedback is to recognise good performance and to encourage it to occur again.  Effective leaders and effective team members give frequent positive feedback. It helps keep work conversations goal directed, and people feel good about their work when their contributions are sincerely recognised.

Is there an easy formula for giving effective positive feedback?

There is indeed. Outline what the person did and explain why it is important. It’s really that simple. The “what” part focuses on specific behaviour, and the “why” part highlights the reason it is important: “I really appreciate that you jumped in unasked to help Dheshni meet her deadline. You enabled her and ultimately the team meet our targets this week.”

Feedback or praise like this is almost always guaranteed to be experienced as genuine and sincere. There is a high likelihood of similar behaviour occurring again. Best of all, it feels as good to the giver as it does to the receiver. There are simply no downsides!

You can also apply this formula to giving effective negative feedback. This is particularly useful when you want to improve or correct performance. Use the formula to point out the behaviour that is unhelpful (“what”) and explain its impact (“why”).

Hurtful criticism such as: “You are always negative! You always find things to complain about!” is unlikely to change behaviour in the future. You may have much better success using the “what” and “why” approach: “You did not raise your concerns at our team meetings, even when you were given the opportunity on two occasions. Now telling everyone in the tea-pause area that the proposals are stupid, is not going to change anything. Let’s talk about your concerns.”

So whether you want to give genuine praise, or effective positive or negative reinforcement, the formula is the same: “what” the person did describing the specific behaviour that lead to the outcome, and “why” it’s important. The benefit is more engaged colleagues and potentially huge gains in productivity.

Isn’t it worth trying?