“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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