The Art of Praise

By Alan Loy McGinnis

Excerpts from the book, “Bringing Out the Best in People,” Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1985


Giving praise–what is known as “positive reinforcement” in the current psychological jargon–is an essential art for an executive or a teacher to master. As a rule, it’s important to expect the best from people overall, but there is another important rule. Although it’s very good to have a positive attitude about a person’s general possibilities, here I’m advocating reinforcing specific behavior. It’s the difference between saying “I’m expecting great things from you” and saying “You’ve done a terrific job straightening out this department.”

If there is a complaint employees most often express, it is this: “I never get any feedback from the boss–except when something goes wrong.” And the teenagers who sit in my office tell me again and again, “My dad gets all over my case when I mess up at school, but when I bring home a good grade he acts as if it’s nothing–that I’m finally doing what I should have been doing all along.”
In The One Minute Manager, Blanchard and Johnson suggest taking frequent breaks for what they describe as “One Minute Praisings.” Catch your subordinate “doing something right,” they advise, then give an immediate compliment.

Such straightforward acts seem easy enough, and we all know they are an effective way of reinforcing good work in our children and employees. Yet stop and think. How long has it been since you took a full 60 seconds to talk to your son or daughter about some fine thing they’ve just done? Or your secretary, or the managers who work under you?

What we’re discussing here is a very basic courtesy that should apply in all human relations–taking the time to thank people who help us. My friend Mike Somdal is a specialist at this. One reason he is so successful in business is that he has mastered the fine art of making people feel good by thanking them regularly. Often he will call customers simply to thank them again for the order they placed last week or for the recommendation they made to another customer or for the lunch. Anything. And before the conversation is over, Mike has often secured another order. Of course, if he called simply with ulterior motives, his clients would recognise the manipulation and resist. But Mike has made gratitude a lifelong habit, and those of us who do business with him appreciate that quality. And we respond.

Teachers are in the habit of calling parents when a student is not performing well, but they might be wise to spend a portion of that time calling parents of kids who are excelling or who have improved markedly. Such obvious respect for students gets around the school and can do a great deal to influence the climate of the classroom.

Nearly every one of us is starving to be appreciated, and when someone comes along who genuinely thanks us, we will follow that person a very long way. “The applause of a single human being,” said Samuel Johnson, “is of great consequence.”

The Art of the Compliment

There are right ways and wrong ways of expressing appreciation and reinforcing positive behavior. Here are some suggestions for praising the people under you.

a. Hand out commendations in public. One-to-one praisings are not nearly as effective as public appreciation. I shall never forget a Monday afternoon during my sophomore year in high school. I knew I had played better than usual in the previous Friday’s football game, and when we assembled for practice I wondered if the coach had noticed my good blocks. Not only had he noticed! He proceeded to tell the whole squad. It was not brilliant praise, for I was not a brilliant player, yet I remember 35 years later my deep pride as he chewed out certain members of the team for poor performances and said, “Now McGinnis is another story. He’s not the most coordinated player we’ve got, but he was really putting out on Friday.” I recall the words verbatim because I desperately needed to be accepted in that group, and when the coach praised me before the team, I finally felt that I was somebody in their eyes.

Parental praisings at dinner will go further than individual commendations, for you have made your child feel good before an audience. And when you have meetings with your employees, use that as an opportunity to dispense your thanks. We all feign modesty and are reluctant to boast about ourselves, but I’ve never known people who did not like having others boast about them. To be present when your boss is telling about your success to someone on the telephone, for instance, or to be at a party when your wife is describing the intelligent way you handled a problem with the children yesterday–those are sweet pleasures.

 b. Use every success as an excuse for celebration. My wife is an expert at praise, and when anything out of the ordinary has happened–a book goes into another printing, or I complete a piece of furniture in the garage–she makes a very big thing of it. She greets me at the door with a special hug, and perhaps with tears in her eyes, she stands with me and talks about how happy she is. Then she fixes us all a special dinner. The best families frequently celebrate each others achievements. Life is sometimes dreary for the people around us, and we can make their existence more pleasurable as well as increase their production if we seize every opportunity for celebration.

c. Employ some gesture to give weight to your commendation. One of the best investments an employer can make is to buy gifts for his staff. When gift-giving becomes ritualized, as at Christmas, it never means as much as when some project is completed and you take the group to lunch and hand out tokens of your appreciation or have secretly had plaques made for their office walls. Thomas Watson Sr. at IBM is said to have made a practice of writing out a cheque on the spot for achievements he observed in his own itinerant management role. When Peters and Waterman were doing the research for their book on excellence in business, they found many such examples of on-the-spot bonuses.

At Foxboro Corporation, a technical advance was desperately needed for survival in the company’s early days. Late one evening, a scientist rushed into the president’s office with a working prototype. Dumbfounded at the elegance of the solution and bemused about how to reward it, the president bent forward in his chair, rummaged through most of the drawers in his desk, found something, leaned over the desk to the scientist, and said, “Here!” In his hand was a banana, the only reward he could immediately put his hands on. From that point on, the small “gold banana” pin has been the highest accolade for scientific achievement at Foxboro!

 d. Put your compliment in writing. There is almost magical power in a note, especially the handwritten letter. When you are important to a person and you take the time to send a letter of commendation, that gesture can have rich rewards. Sometimes you can double the effect of the gesture by writing, not to the person, but to someone else. I have a friend who travels a great deal, and when an airline employee does him a favour he not only thanks the person face to face, but also asks for the name of the employee’s supervisor, and drops a note to that supervisor when he returns home. You can be sure that carries more weight than any expression of thanks to the employee.

e. Be very specific in your praise. Vague slaps on the back, like telling people that they’re “doing a good job”, do not have nearly the impact of a detailed commendation. “I liked the way you used the colors for the tree in your picture” registers with a five-year-old more than your saying, “That’s a pretty picture.” It shows that you have looked at it with care. Moreover, you are reinforcing specific behaviour. Let’s say that your staff has successfully pulled in a large contract. They may not be aware of the exact reasons they succeeded this time and failed at another time. So it is important for you to point out exactly what you liked about their presentation, and to show that you noticed how they worked overtime on a crucial weekend to sharpen the proposal, for example.

Karen Pryor tells about her friend Annette, who is good at comforting and offers sympathy and advice when you’re in trouble. “But it is in the area of good news that Annette offers unusual reinforcement,” says Pryor. “Tell her the bank approved your loan, and she does more than say, That's great!' She points out exactly what you did to earn and deserve the good news.You see?’ Annette might respond. `Remember all the trouble you went to with the phone company and getting an air-travel card? Now it pays off for you; you’re recognized as a good businesswoman. But you had to make the right moves first, and you did. I’m really proud of you.’ That,” says Pryor, “is more than approval, that is reinforcement.”

Observing Improvement

The alert leader will always be on the lookout for signs of positive change. There is nothing more demoralizing than to change at great expense, then have our superiors allow the change to go unnoticed. Too frequently they assume that we have the same bad habits or attitudes that we had last month, when in fact we may be quite different.

A. W. Beaven tells of a heartbreaking incident. A little girl had been misbehaving and her mother had to rebuke her often. But one day the little girl had tried especially hard and hadn’t done a single thing that called for reprimand. That night, after the mother had tucked her in bed and started down the stairs, she heard her daughter sobbing. Turning back, she found her head buried in the pillow. Between sobs her daughter asked, “Haven’t I been a pretty good girl today?” “That question,” said the mother, “went through me like a knife. I had been quick enough to correct her when she did wrong, but when she had tried to behave, I had not noticed it. I had put her to bed without one word of appreciation.”


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Author: Frederick Olson

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.

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