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The #1 Way to Motivate Employees

The #1 Way to Motivate Employees

I once told my third-grade teacher I hated math, most likely because the subject was a mental struggle for me. “But you’re so good at it,” she told me, and the response resonated with me.

I never stopped to wonder whether she was right. Instead, I trusted her judgement, strived to live up to her praise, and became good at math. I carried her confidence in my skill with me all the way through my college-level high school calculus class.

Years later, I held the lowest possible position in a company – meaning there was plenty of potential for upward movement. I was stationed in a small, basement-dwelling department, far away from the higher-ranking professionals.

When I walked by my supervisor’s cubicle on my way out the door every day, she always thanked me for my work, no matter how many mistakes I might have made that day. She thanked me for trying my best, and in the coming days, my best got much, much better.

Every time my supervisor thanked me for my work, I felt more responsible, more important, and more valued as a member of the team. With a simple thank you, she showed me an incredible level of professional and personal respect, and I wanted to live up to that.

For the most part, business owners and managers live in a world of constant praise. They’re accustomed to success. Despite the missteps they’ve probably made along the way, they’ve risen to positions of power, authority, and prominence, their past failures forgotten.

Whether it’s a verbal “good job!” from a colleague or the intrinsic pride of a job well done, as a higher-up, you’re used to receiving praise. But, can you recall a time before you achieved your current level of success? Were you ever criticized by teachers or bosses for your performance? I bet those weren’t the happiest of times for you.

Humans are social animals; we need recognition, approval, and acceptance from our peers to thrive. Not everyone is strong enough to encourage themselves, especially when faced with negativity from the people around them. External positive reinforcement is vital.

Old School Discipline

If you went to a Catholic school, you might have a few anecdotes about a nun slapping your knuckles with a ruler. Even as a product of public school education, I still vividly remember when paddling was an acceptable form of discipline.

In first grade, I witnessed one such punishment, and nowadays it seems almost barbaric. My teacher team-taught with three other teachers and shared a large common space for group activities. One day, all the children were gathered into the common space for the elementary school version of a hanging in the public square. We sat cross-legged and watched as one child was brought to the center of the crowd and paddled – and I can’t remember what his crime was, or even his name.

That was the old standard for addressing bad behavior – focus on the negative, apply punishment, and hope public shaming deters others from the same bad behavior. It was a logical approach, but it didn’t work.

Except for the victim of the public paddling, I can still name all the “bad kids” I went to elementary school with. One day, they started getting in trouble, and then they never stopped. They were never praised, and so they thrived on the negative attention. I can’t help but wonder how their lives might have been different if, instead of accusing them of causing trouble, a teacher had accused them of being good at math.

The New School of Thought

If you grew up in the era of “old-school discipline,” it’s most likely influenced the way you think you should be managing your employees. You discipline bad behavior and hope it doesn’t happen again.

But we live in a kinder world now, and we’ve proven that behavioral issues can’t be solved effectively by a nun with a ruler, or a teacher with a paddle. Negativity breeds negativity; if you only focus on the negatives, you’ll keep finding more negatives to focus on.

Does this mean standards have been relaxed? Not at all! You should still hold your employees to high standards of performance, but you should consider changing how you motivate them to achieve those standards. Avoid excessive criticism and punishment. Praising is the new paddling.

According to a recent Inc. Magazine article, praising employees boosts their morale and encourages them to engage more fully in their jobs. Research shows that 70% of employees who received praise for their work expressed job satisfaction.

If we know happy employees do their best work, shouldn’t the goal be to make them happy, rather than punish them?

Are We Just Relaxing Our Standards?

Don’t worry – this concept isn’t about relaxing your standards and giving everyone a participation trophy. If you expect 100% from your employees, you’ll realistically receive 95%, because lower-achieving employees might bring the average down. To get the 100% you’re looking for, you’ll have to aim high, and strive for 110%.

So, your standards aren’t in question. Rather, it’s important to question the methods you use to get your employees to achieve those standards. It might seem counterintuitive to praise an employee who has made a mistake, but appropriate, periodic praise can be immensely effective.

Here are a few tips to help you motivate your employees with praise.

  • Praise, like any communication with your employees, should always be genuine. Don’t praise a job well done when a job hasn’t been done well. You can, however, praise only the successful parts of a task. For example: “George, your solution was excellent, and Fred, your execution was strong.”
  • Don’t disguise criticism as praise or qualify praise with criticism, such as, “Glad you made it to work on time, now try to actually accomplish something.” Give the employee a compliment, and save the criticism for another time. “I appreciate your punctuality” is all you need to say.
  • Non-verbal cues are a large component of human communication, so always keep your facial expression in mind. Deliver praise with a smile. You shouldn’t look like you’re in pain when giving a compliment.
  • When possible, make your praise public. There’s nothing wrong with letting your employees, and even your clients, know that you value every member of your team. Feel free to compliment your employees out in the open.
  • Make your praise specific. “I appreciate your work” is vague; be sure to give details. What about your employee’s work, specifically, was praiseworthy? You might try, “I appreciate the extra effort you put in to meet the deadline for this project.”
  • Praise freely and frequently! You don’t have to wait until a big project is finished to give employees a pat on the back. Compliment every employee regularly to keep them energized, motivated, and productive.
  • Even your worst employees need praise. In fact, your worst employees need praise the most! Employees with consistently poor performance are aware of their own faults; they don’t need you to remind them. What they do need is encouragement to keep trying, and the confidence to ask for help when they need it. With praise, you should see their performance improve.

Every employee will feel like the boss’ favorite if you lavish all of them with praise. When your employees feel appreciated, they will work harder to keep the boss’ favor. So, praise everyone, praise often, and you’ll soon see the benefits.

Praise Is Not My Style

Why don’t all bosses praise their employees, if it works so well? Believe it or not, some bosses think they need to protect their reputation. They think the only way to maintain authority is by enforcing good work behavior with an iron fist.

My question for these bosses is this: “How’s that working for you?” Inevitably, these hard-nosed bosses are unsatisfied with the work their employees produce – and sometimes just unhappy in general. Being the “bad guy” in the workplace can put a lot of stress on the boss’ shoulders.

If you’re a boss who is “just not the praising type,” you might find yourself delivering a few too many ultimatums. This harsh disciplinary style rarely gets results – and it makes everyone involved feel bad. If an employee refuses to perform, despite your ultimatum, you’ve demonstrated your lack of authority, instead of getting results.

A boss will gain more authority with praise than with criticism. When your employees trust you, and look forward to working with you, work days stop feeling like endless battles. If you’re looking for strong effort and compliance, consider praise.

Iron-fisted bosses might also say, “Those employees do everything wrong. What is there to praise them for? Wouldn’t praising them just be accepting their bad performance?”

Even if it’s something as small as arriving on-time in a clean uniform, you should be able to find something praiseworthy about every employee. If you can’t, why is that employee still working for you?

The employees in need of the most praise are the ones that seem like hopeless cases. Your worst employee has most likely already given up, thinking they can never meet your standards. If you praise that employee every day, you just might give them the hope and motivation they need to keep trying until they succeed.

Even if you have to dig deep to find something praiseworthy, you’ll end up knowing and understanding your employee a little bit better and renewing your own faith in their ability. Healing the boss-employee relationship will improve not only the employee’s morale, but your own, as well.

You catch more flies with honey, you reap what you sow, do unto others…etc., etc., etc. There are dozens of clichés, but the truth is, if you put positivity into the workplace, you’ll receive positive results in return. Happy people do better work – bosses included.

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Comments (2)

  • Anne Waling Reply

    This is a great article-and it showed up in my feed at exactly the right moment. It is easy to forget to thank people, and to forget to build them up. I have struggled a lot to improve my grasp of details, and the more I concentrate on that, the more likely I am to dwell on small things and forget the important lesson in this post!

    March 21, 2018 at 6:56 pm
    • admin Reply

      Female bosses sometimes think they should leave their manners at home and be tough at work. This is also a poor management style. You can be yourself at work, a little demanding, a little nurturing and a lot human. Thank you for reading.

      March 24, 2018 at 1:34 pm

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