We all know that positive reinforcement is the right way to train and manage behaviour with our children and our pets (See “Teaching old dogs new tricks” posted June 20, 2010), and yet most managers are quite unskilled in how and when to praise those around them, relying on short term and minimal return programmes like “Employee of the Month”.

Recognising good performance should be on a daily, weekly, contact by contact sincere reaction to what has been achieved, as structured recognition programmes tend to be short-lived and of limited real benefit in reinforcing the behaviour that you want employees to repeat.

The focus should be on “catching people doing something right” and reacting straight away, so don’t just spend time creating formal recognition programmes, but make it part of your management responsibility and focus.

Some tips …

1. Be sincere and specific

My first real job was at International Harvester NZ (a company now long gone so I can name them) which had a CEO who would walk the corridors and shop floor regularly and would say hello to everyone and tell them that they were doing a great job. While it was nice to meet the CEO, the reality that he did not know who we were or what we did, meant that not only did it have no meaning, but the fact that he couldn’t tell anyone how or what they were actually doing well meant that he wasn’t treated seriously, nor was he reinforcing any specific behaviour. It also meant that when he actually did try and honestly praise someone for having done something specific and worthwhile, the impact was diminished.

Author: Tomorrow Never Knows; via Wikimedia Commons

2. Strike while the iron is hot

The longer you wait the lesser will be the impact. To wait for the end of the year to do performance reviews and hand out performance awards has little lasting impact. To wait till the end of the month for the “all hands” meeting can have some benefit from a peer recognition viewpoint, but telling someone that they have performed well immediately after the event has greater impact, and reinforces the behaviour that is being recognised.

3. Forget the advice about being balanced when praising

Many managers believe that praise should only be handed out when balanced with some advice on improvements. This doesn’t work, and discussions on what improvements are needed should be left to another time with a session that is well prepared. The advice that negative feedback should be balanced with something positive is reasonable, but using a praise opportunity to also cover shortcomings will just detract from the chance to encourage someone to keep doing what they have just done well.

4. Praise at all levels

It is always easy to praise top performers, as they tend to exhibit the behaviours that are needed to make them successful anyway, but you should also look for reasons to praise the behaviour and positive actions of those that are under-performers, as it is unlikely that even those who are struggling are doing everything incorrectly.
As it is your job as a manager to help everyone to improve their performance (See “Move them up or move them out” posted 23 August, 2010), praise for a “struggler” is one key element of trying to help them move up the performance ladder. It is obviously much harder to do this with low performers but the results can be dramatic if done with sincerity, and as a way of showing that you are aware of what they are doing and that you are there to help them succeed.

5. Praise needs to be tailor-made

Praise should not be doled out in an approach of “one size fits all”.
Some people want their recognition to be open, loud and visible (like many sales people), whilst others prefer it to be very personal and private. You have to know your people well enough to understand what form of recognition has the greatest impact for them rather than believing that everyone wants to be picked out in front of a crowd.

Author: Inga Munsinger; via Wikimedia Commons

6. Surprise them

Don’t always use the same approach as after some time it will lose its impact and become mundane. Recognition at a sales meeting is fine, but I have found that a personal visit, or a hand-written letter, from the CEO congratulating someone (or a team) on winning an important sale for example, can leave a greater impression.
It is important to also not forget the contribution made by an employee’s family, as flowers sent to the wife of a hard working employee, thanking her for her understanding and support for his absence from home can have even greater impact than just praising your team member.

Author: Rico Shen (User:BrockF5); via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that effective and timely use of praise is a key element of success of any team.
Whilst most managers find formal and structured recognition programmes easier to implement and administer, using personal praise that is due when it happens has much greater impact on long term behaviour and performance. At the same time, it is also important that you don’t overdo it as that will downgrade its value and make it humdrum.

Praising every minor thing that happens will ultimately have the same effect as praising little, but its proper use as a management tool is critical.



  1. Frank says:

    Les, in total agreement with you. At Pinpoint I think we did the best praise and recognition, I have come across. It was a corporate culture, driven by Kim Harding the CEO/Owner. Senior managers and line managers were asked to nominate achievers (Kim/we could quickly pickup those that rewarded “pets”/friends and not true achievers). KIm would recognise them, with a personal note, followed by an achievers lunch and $ value gift cards, on a monthly basis. We tried not to reward people for doing what they were paid to do, biu those that went the extra yard.. Kim termed it ABCD recognition, Above, Beyond Call of Duty. I introduced these principals successfully at other companies I’ve been involved with since then. The key is it has to be top down and become a “culture”, but beware it doesn’t become an “expectation”. Cold & wet in Sydney!, rgds, Frank

  2. leshayman says:

    Frank … I am a great supporter of the personal note from the CEO. I always had personalised staionary that I used to hand write to those that had performed above and beyond. I also believe that wandering down to an emplotees’s desk to say “Thanks and well done” is important. Les

  3. John Du Bois says:

    Les, You are the best ‘man manager” I have ever worked for or with and the lessons learnt I have adapted to my philosophy and leadershp. It’s incredible how much loyalty this builds and how much more your people will stretch when asked,, if you have taken the time, to thank them, praise them and are consistent in your messaging, to both the high achievers and all those that show the right attitude. It has and is seen as part of company culture and its fantastic to see this reflected as and when required.

  4. leshayman says:

    John … you are a loyal old friend … thanks for the kind words.
    I have always seen your commitment to your people and the results this engendered.

  5. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, I just love you for this article! Adriana

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: