More on the art of giving praise


Photo by annthrop

I love this blog post, “The art of giving praise”, by Steven DeMaio on the Harvard Business Review blog. As someone who has been teaching the art of feedback and is a firm believer in the importance of positive recognition, I still face some hurdles when I give positive feedback and I think DeMaio’s post confronted some of these hurdles.

People sometimes find it harder to give positive feedback then negative feedback. Especially to people who are humble and are eager to learn, because they feel a little bit shy while listening to how good they performed. And the person giving the feedback feels a little, well, stupid, saying to the other guy how good he was. It’s awkward and it seems like a waste of time. After all, they guy did it well. I know. I have been there.

That is why I think the first tip given by DeMaio is really important:

Be truly specific. General compliments like “Great job!” or “Excellent presentation!” surely have their place, especially as you hurry to your next meeting. But precise feedback does much more, both for the ego of the recipient and for the quality of her future work. And guess what? “You were so inspiring” or “I loved your final pitch” isn’t specific enough. Tell Carmen that her well-organized tables in part 2 helped you realize that the team’s new project is actually an extension of the previous one (contrary to how others have framed the new venture) and that key components can be imported to save time. She might be able to build on the point at the next team meeting. At the very least, you’ve helped her identify a takeaway message that she delivered successfully.

If you concentrate your feedback not only on what was done well, but also on the ramifications of it, both tangible and intangible, your allow the listener to get a better insight of the implications of his positive behaviour. Sometimes, this person is aware that he is good at something, but does not understand all the effects his positive performance had. Feedback is about providing information that the performer cannot see or hear by himself. It is an attempt to put a real-time mirror that will enable the listener to see himself fully. We need to remember that that feedback giver sees things that the receiver doesn’t and we should be careful from assuming otherwise. Thus, the more information we give, the more valuable it will be for the listener.

But, focusing on positive feedback is even more important. I have seen many people who are truly eager to learn and improve and their enthusiasm leads them to ignore the positive feedback and focus only on the negative feedback. “OK”, they say, “just tell me what I need to improve”.

While learning from your mistakes and improving aspects of your performance is important, an enormous untapped potential lies in recognizing ones strengths and leveraging them to future better performance.  That is why I think DeMaio’s tip #3: “Praise with action, not just words” is an important one. It holds an understanding about the importance of a person’s strengths and the fact that leveraging your strength might produce superior results to improving your weakness.

Like DeMaio, I don’t think we should give positive feedback just because it is the polite thing to do or in order to mitigate the negative feedback. This actually can hinder the effectiveness of the feedback process. But as soon as we recognize the importance of positive feedback and spend time making it count, the recipients of our feedback will not only appreciate it, but will learn to use it in order to advance their next performance and overcome their weakness.


5 Responses to “More on the art of giving praise”

  1. Paige Moore Says:

    It is true that we can learn by our mistakes. Giving negative feedback doesn’t mean we criticized them but with this we can feel more encouragement to make it good or better in the next performance you are going to.

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Hey Paige,
    Thanks for your comment.
    It made me ralize I must have not explained myself clearly enough.
    I did not say that giving negative feedback is bad.
    You are totaly right that “Giving negative feedback doesn’t mean we criticized them” and if you are able to create that kind of trust, then you have done half of your job.
    I was just focusing my attention to the part of the feedback that deals with the positive, because I feel people tned to ignore and understate its importance.
    Thank you for your comment and hope to see you commenting again on this blog.

  3. Derek Irvine, Globoforce Says:

    Agreed, Elad. Specific praise is critical for employees (especially GenY) who need to know the meaning in their work. Specific praise tells them that not only are their efforts valued, but how they help achieve the strategic objectives of organization. His last point on not couching criticism in praise is equally valid, as well. Such a “criticism sandwich” is hollow praise, indeed. People begin to anticipate the “but…” part of your praise and flinch when you begin to compliment them. This is most certainly the the least desired response and can actually kill any efforts to create a culture of appreciation in the office. If there is criticism to give, give it. But do so appropriately.

  4. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Derek,
    I am always happy to hear your comments.
    I haven’t even considered the Gen-Y perspective. Maybe because I am boarder line Gen-Y myself :). I also enjoyed your comment about the “but…” part. This is a word I try to avoid when I give feedback, though I admit it is hard.
    Hope to read more of your comments in the future!

  5. The difference between downstream and upstream feedback « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] wrote in the past about the difficulties of giving positive feedback and praise . I do believe that positive feedback and noticing employees are very important concepts that are […]

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