Thinking Out Loud

Praise in the Workplace

Joshua owns and runs a small business with fifteen employees. He enjoys managing and takes pride in his ability to work with others. Delegating, in particular, is important to his philosophy of running the business. He wants others to take initiative, responsibility, and feel empowered on the job. So, he tries to be clear about his expectations but also encourages employees to take some risks and not be afraid to make mistakes.

Recently, he received feedback from his second in command, Beth. During the conversation, Joshua praised Beth for something she had recently accomplished. In a casual way, she commented about how nice it was to receive praise from him. To which, Joshua replied, “But I often give praise to you and everyone else here.” Beth’s reply took him aback, “Well, you’re very kind and open with people, but you rarely give praise.” This exchange was not at all contentious. It was very thoughtful and gentle.

When Joshua spoke with me about it, he was pensive and rather sober. After talking with Beth that day he began carefully observing his behavior at work and concluded that, indeed, he gave very little direct praise. This fact troubled him and he was beginning to correct what he considered a flaw in his management style.

As we discussed this issue in more detail, we gained a deeper understanding of what was really occurring. Joshua is naturally supportive of others. Empathy is one of his strong suits. He also notices what others are doing and comments constructively about the specifics. But the new insight that emerged for him was this: When he is pleased with what someone has accomplished, he talks with them about it in a particular manner, his I’m very pleased manner. If, however, he was not pleased, he would have a different demeanor. Of course this is true for all of us. But for Joshua, when he was in his I’m very pleased demeanor, he assumed he was giving praise when he literally wasn’t, not directly. Beth told him that his detailed critiques were helpful but without a direct expression of praise, others were not always sure how he felt about their performance.

Stating the obvious, something I often advocate, is important at work and at home. It’s too easy to assume others have the same understanding as we do when it seems so obvious to us. Making the effort to state praise directly and clearly is well worth the effort.

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