New research: The most powerful way to praise people
  • leadership
  • Blog post

New research: The most powerful way to praise people

I’ve talked a lot in these posts about the right and wrong way to give employee recognition. But some new research points to a powerful strategy that I’ve never seen before.

It comes from a new book called “The Progress Principle” by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer. They conducted a fascinating study on how organizations sustain effective performance and high employee satisfaction. To gather data they surveyed 238 employees in 7 companies over several months. The employees, all knowledge workers, logged 12,000 daily diary entries that answered the question: “Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind.”

The researchers grouped these “events” into three categories:

  • Nourishing events: interpersonal events that uplift people — for example, when a boss praises the employee or provides emotional support.
  • Catalytic events: those that directly help project work — such as when a boss provides resources or training to improve performance — and
  • Progress events: for example, when people feel they’re making progress in meaningful work.

On what the researchers called “best days,” here’s the frequency of events mentioned:

  • Progress: 76%
  • Catalytic: 43%
  • Nourishing: 25%

I find these results stunning. What they tell me is that if I’m trying to motivate a person, it’s fine to say, “Great job” to people (nourishing events). It’s great to give people resources and training (catalytic events). But if I want to have a really big impact on the motivation and engagement of my people, I’ll seize every opportunity I can find to comment on their progress toward a goal. The key insight driving these survey results is that employees have a very deep, probably innate, desire to do a good job and advance their careers. When we praise them on their progress, we remind them that they’re advancing. And, perhaps even more important, that we – their leaders – actually noticed.

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