Employee praise doesn’t sound like it should be that hard. If employees are really doing a good job, finding ways to communicate that message should be simple.

Yet many efforts to praise employees don’t have the desired effect. In fact, they can erode your credibility as a manager and make employees feel less valued than if you’d just kept quiet.

So where do managers go wrong? Let’s look at four common examples:

Number One: Talking down to people
Some comments might seem innocuous on the surface. “Jane, you did a great job solving that customer’s problem.” But what if the speaker used to be Jane’s peer and is now her manager? It could sound like the speaker just wanted to reinforce her own status, rather than make Jane feel good.

Number Two: Manipulating people
“Wow, Joe, you did a terrific job on that design project. How would you like to do another one in time for next week’s meeting?” Sure, it sounds like praise, but to Joe, it might seem like you’re trying to goad him into additional work.

Number Three: Setting up a reprimand
If you’re going to give some form of negative feedback, don’t try to cushion it with half-hearted praise. Telling someone “You’re doing good work, but you need to be more respectful of others’ ideas” doesn’t soften the blow. All the employee is likely to hear is the reprimand.

Number Four: Disingenuous praise
This one is by far the most damaging to managers. Imagine an employee hands you a report he threw together at the last minute. It’s mediocre work, and he knows it. But you have other things on your mind, and so you tell him, “Great job.”

He knows better. If you’re lucky, he’s thinking he just got away with something and is very clever. In that case, you just look like an idiot. But if he’s a dedicated performer, he feels blown off, as though his work wasn’t important enough to register on your radar. That feeling of insignificance can irrevocably damage your relationship with that employee.

Making it work
So what should you do to make sure that when you praise an employee, it comes across as smart, sincere, and motivational?

Praise works when you:
1. Invest the time required to decide that what the person did was indeed praiseworthy. When that employee hands you the report, take the time to study it before saying it’s well-done (if in fact it is).

2. Give specific examples of what pleased you. “Joe, I especially liked the way you solved the design challenge in the client’s outer lobby. That’s a tough space to do much with, and you figured out a way to make it both useable and attractive.”

3. Show that you “get” the person’s talent. “Jane, it’s amazing how you manage to keep up with developments in such a fast-moving market. You must have a real gift for research.”

If you praise your employees this way, you’ll help them feel more valuable and encourage them to give additional discretionary effort — making both themselves and you look good.

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