The Seesaw of Praise

As leaders, it is a pleasure and an honor to praise and acknowledge the achievements of individuals and our teams; it can also backfire in our faces.  With the increased demands on people for higher quality, faster productivity and fewer resources to use, excellence in the world deserves admiration.  While it is not always necessary to give accolades, I think many people feel it is nice to be noted and recognized for accomplishments.  It gives leaders an opportunity to directly relate hard work with superior results that made an impact.  The opposite side to this topic is the person or group who feels left out or slighted when it comes to praise.  Some team members may ask “What about me or us?”  Then there are others who do not wish to be praised at all; they prefer to remain unidentified.

We each have our own interpretation of the value of our work and our efforts.  When we are recognized by our leaders for our work, in a way it validates our interpretation.  When we are working within a team or a group, acknowledgement of the entire team may be sufficient if it is agreed that every team member puts forth an equivalent amount of effort or participation. However, if there is a sense of burden for one or two people to ‘carry’ the team, commendation for the entire group may seem unjustified or unfair.   Think of it this way: How would you feel if you and your siblings were told to clean up your shared room and you are the only one who does any of the work while the others goof off?  What if you and your siblings then got the same reward for cleaning your room, yet they were little or no help?  That type of scenario pings on our sense of righteousness.

As leaders, what can we do?  One common thread in my blogs is communication, and this subject is no different.  We need to communicate with our teams, often and directly.  Through communication we are aware of the level of work being performed as well as the people responsible for doing the work.  This makes it easier to acknowledge superior effort since we have the data to back up our praise.  Using data or a process to define excellence, our accolades are less generic and more tailored to that particular group or task. This may ease the sense of righteousness felt in others since the praise is more explicit. Keep in mind though, not all awards must be specific or elaborate; sometimes a very simple “thank you” and a handshake will suffice.  Either way, people know they are appreciated, and that is the best motivator for future success than leaders could ever hope for.

-Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team



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  1. #1 by Ikonographi on November 26, 2012 - 1:35 pm

    Excellent topic…

    I’m working on a similar piece concerning the infrastructure of military units and how it applies to social order-recognition of “elite” performance among the key points.

    All too often in today’s professional landscape, we are discouraged from citing the extraordinary-it seems that we have abandoned the “carrot” of inspiration for the “stick” of normalization.

    Having a predictable standard of performance is key to business success…no organization can unilaterally depend on the “heroic” nor carry the overhead of the peridoic prodigy.

    Still, giving the team a sense of upward mobility built not on survival, but self determination…what we used to call “ownership” in the “old school” is the secret to a winning combination of competency and metrics.

  2. #2 by Jerry O'Donnell, CAPT, USN, ret on November 27, 2012 - 6:52 pm

    Great article. It is important as a leader to get out to the places where you people work and show interest in that work. If a sailor’s work is important to the leaders of the organization it will be more likely to be important to the person performing the work. Learning the names of your people and addressing them by name sends a message that you know they are individuals and worth remembering. In the military we have mostly very young people with an average age around 19-20. Many of them have been in the background all of their young lives. Recognizing them by name and acknowledging their contribution is a particularly strong motivator for this group.

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