The topic of workplace feedback is wide and deep. Maybe I will write a book about it someday, but to keep this article a reasonable length, I’m going to focus exclusively on praise.
There are three truths about praise:
- Not many people take the direct path and say, “Good job.”
- Most people are oblivious.
- Not everyone likes to be praised.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
The Indirect Path
I was working with a client a while back who felt disconcerted because his manager never said, “Thank you.” He thought he was doing a good job at work, but never received direct positive feedback. When we took a closer look at the situation, the proof his manager valued him was right there all along.
Here are some clues that your manager is pleased with the job you’re doing:
- You’re invited to meetings. Most people are so busy they think of another meeting as a punishment. But consider: Who else is at the meeting? Is it a topic that expands your current role? Will being involved create opportunities down the road or make your current job a bit easier? Most often, the invitation is a gesture of growing trust or belief in your abilities.
- You’re called upon to present…again. Like attending more meetings, many people don’t enjoy presenting. But if you did a bad job the first time, your manager would hesitate to put you in front of an audience a second time. It’s actually a compliment to be asked to lead a meeting and share your knowledge.
- Your manager stops attending your meetings or no longer wants to be copied on every communication. This isn’t a sign that they don’t care, but that they trust the work you’re doing. Just remember they expect you to keep them updated on the project’s progress, and to let them know if you need them to help resolve an issue.
Most People are Oblivious
Yes, it’s true. 😉
What seems like a monumental task to you, something you’re exceptionally proud of, your manager may never even mention. They’re not trying to ignore your good work. They just have a myriad of other things to do. (Hey, if they had time to do your work as well as their own, you wouldn’t have a job.)
A long time ago I had a friend who worked for a big supply company. He used to go in on the weekends when no one was around to inventory the warehouse, straighten the shelves, and basically do a ton of things that kept the place working efficiently during the week.
I’m sure you can guess what happened: his boss never noticed, and if he did, he didn’t say a word.
Don’t expect anyone to be focused on what you’re doing. Most managers expect you to do a good job—you were hired to do it, so just being competent won’t merit praise. There are no participation awards.
I gave my friend this advice and it is still relevant: either don’t do the extra work, or let your manager know the relevant outcome.
There was no reason for my friend to go in on his own time to clean the warehouse. He could do it, or assign someone to do it, during the workweek. If he wanted to show his initiative, he could have told his boss about a significant finding during his time the past weekend. Remember, fishing for compliments is unprofessional and will backfire. Better to focus on the outcome. And again, if there’s no benefit to the project or company, don’t do it.
If you have an “oblivious” manager, simply let them know a particular event or effort went well. Here are some tips to receive a positive reaction:
- Keep your delivery in your normal communication style. You want your manager to focus on the event, not be distracted by your altered style.
- Don’t tell them about every little thing; the big efforts won’t stand out.
- Be consistent in your communication so sharing good news won’t come during a special meeting.
Not Everyone Likes to Be Praised
This may shock some people, while others will raise their hand and say, “Oh, yeah, right here!”
For those who can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good pat on the back (or bouquet of flowers), take a moment to think about your teams. You have many personalities and styles to manage every day. Your communication methods vary to make sure you reach everyone.
So if Brenda doesn’t speak during a meeting, or if Lonnie blathers on about everything he did last weekend, you will likely find they will receive praise very differently, too.
And there are more of these folks on our teams than we know. They usually just grin and bear it.
A few years ago, I worked with an amazing team lead. She was the lynchpin to success in her area. I wanted to let her know how much I appreciated her. But she told me that she hates (yes, hates) to be called out, even if it’s praise. And she didn’t just mean in the obvious, public way. Her name attached to a team thank-you email caused her discomfort.
For team members like this, balloons aren’t going to be well received. Here are some low-key ways that, if they accept anything, may work:
- Reply to all their email / DMs. That’s it. Just do them the courtesy of acknowledging their communication.
- Use their data. They want to contribute and to know they’re doing a good job. When you actually use their work product, they’ll feel valued.
- Do something for the whole team, but not together. A team gathering is probably not going to fly. But something non-personal will be more appreciated, like letting people know that next Friday you want everyone to take off at noontime (if within your power).
At the end of the day, the most important part of praise is paying attention to the communication style of the person on the other end of the line. When you’re seeking validation, you may want direct feedback but receive indirect signs of trust. On the other hand, you may feel uncomfortable with a public shout-out, but your manager loves to hand out awards.
And when showing appreciation to a team member, the best outcome happens when you focus on their most receptive communication style, not your own.