Do you recognise the following scenario? You have been working on a complex and frustrating project over several months and at the end you solved the problem and made a positive contribution to the company’s strategic plan or revenue? You are all fired up and are bursting to tell someone and especially let your boss know. Then you wait and wait and wait for your line manager to say something and they either never do or they damn with faint praise. Either way you are frustrated, let down and completely de-motivated. Where can you go from there? Do you actually want to go anywhere for this manager or company anymore? True, they are still paying you and you have a contract and job description BUT most importantly, how do you feel deep down and where do these feelings come from? After all there is a wealth of research as early as the 1970’s showing that pay is not the most important aspect factor in job satisfaction. So where does this desire for praise come from and is it relevant to performance?
I have observed in myself a powerful desire for approval and praise. I suspect that I am not special in this respect and lie somewhere in the middle of the “approval spectrum”. We seldom acknowledge our real emotions and even when we do we rarely understand where they originate and appreciate the potency that they have in our work lives. Somehow we consider emotions as things we only need to address in our private lives. After all most of our arguments are paradoxically with those we love. We spend most of our working lives experiencing emotional triggers but either suppress our emotions or re-direct them so that instead of dealing with them in the moment we breed resentment in ourselves or in others. In addition, we fail to acknowledge the potency of that denial and how affects our mood and physical wellbeing.
So what is it we are really looking for and from whom? When we are children we need to know what is right and what is wrong and one way to discern the two is to get affirmation from our parents and other figures of authority. Most of us receive appropriate congratulations and praise and in appropriate proportions but some do not. For some of us parents might praise too much for small achievements so that the child has a disproportionate view of what we have to achieve in order to get praise. At the other end of the spectrum some children receive muted or even no praise from their parents and develop no expectations and perhaps no ambition.
We also grow with a very powerful need to belong, initially to our family and then to other peer or interest groups. For example, I have been members of various sports clubs most recently as a kayak coach) and derived great comfort and enjoyment from this. This drive to belong is powerful so why should it be any different in the workplace?
The question then is how can we feel more part of our group at work and how can this belonging be converted into performance hikes? I believe that there are two elements to this and both are aspects of leadership. The first is to learn how to “belong” to ourselves and second how to belong to our group or team. Now I hope that this does not sound too much like pseudo psychology. What I am trying to get at is can we give ourselves appropriate praise and can we integrate that into our core? For if we cannot learn how to receive praise from ourselves and do something positive with that how can we expect to receive praise from others and do anything positive with that?
I have been an achiever all my life and as a result have received praise in the form of qualifications and written and verbal praise. However, for many years I had no idea what to do with this. I was unable to integrate much of this and became addicted to the search for more. After much reflection I realised that I had not learned how to praise myself. I am not sure how this happened but I found it very difficult to recognise key that moment and say to myself well done. I came to this realisation late in life but fortunately not too late!
This revelation helped me in other ways. I have been fortunate to lead a range of different groups during my career as a university academic both as a direct line manager and also as an influencer of informal multidisciplinary groups. I have never been comfortable with linear management styles and felt really pressured to achieve. My naive view culminated with me working massive hours and feeling huge responsibility to come up with powerful visions and to deliver multiple endpoints. Seven years ago I became director of the St. George’s Medical Biomics Centre adding yet more responsibility and work. We offer high technology services to biomedical researchers. I now managed five more staff in addition to my own research team. What I realised very quickly was that this could not be another one man band or I would collapse under the load. There had to be another way.
I realised that I had to build a team, a team whose members really identified with the group and a team where each member contributed to our vision and how we achieved it. I reflected on belonging and how I needed to use praise at the beginning of my tenure. Praise is useless if it is not proportionate and appropriate. It is a Band Aid approach that rapidly fizzles out. People are intelligent and they rapidly sense when praise or approbation is not matched to their action. It is often said that a leader’s actions must be a physical expression of what they preach. Using praise appropriately is the same. It is no good saying “well done” if you do not state what it was that was well done and how it enhanced the performance of the Team. So how can we give appropriate praise?
One way is to simply say “thank you” when someone does something for you. It is remarkable how little this is done and how powerful it is when said sincerely. When thanks is not given it is as if a boss is saying to a direct report, “why do you need a thank you from me, you’re being paid to do this aren’t you?” This is a direct slap in the face and is received at a gut emotional level. If we behave this way as a leader we should expect a, “why the hell should I bother” response from the report”.
How can we give powerful praise that is positive but not linked directly to a task? One way is to show confidence in people by letting them do what they are good at, to delegate appropriately. When our Biomics Team is faced with complex challenges the only way to succeed has been to synergise all of our different skills and experience. Once we identified our strategy I say to each team member, “I trust in your skills and experience and I know that you can play your part”, I add that, “I do not need to know everything you do, only those things that are important and I leave you to decide what they are.” I ensure though that they know that I am there for them when needed and that I will contribute my expertise to the challenge alongside them. If you like, what I do is give praise ahead of any achievement. What I observe is an almost palpable expression of confidence in my reports as I am treating them like whole and capable adults rather than children in need of constant guidance. Of course, when we do achieve I remind them that it was their expertise and efforts that made it possible. It is seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy and if we do it once we can of course do it again and again.
Another important way to give praise is to simply be there for your Team when it counts. When external forces threaten them or when you need to get formal recognition for their efforts you need to be there for them. A good leader has their radar set looking outwards sensing changes in the organisation and its culture, ensuring that the Teams actions map on to the organisations strategy. It’s also important that the leader sense market changes or changes in legal environments. For example if there is criticism of your team from within your organisation and you know that this is unfounded, one way to give indirect praise to your team is counter the bad press with concrete data and clear support for your team, naming names and giving credit where it is due. Your team will see that you are for them and in fact one of them and this ensures that you belong to the team. This is good for the team and good for you. Just because you are a leader does not mean that you have grown out of the need to belong.
Praise given in this authentic way creates trust. Trust is the lifeblood of any team. It is hard work to create it and can be lost in the blink of an eye. Accurately and honestly applied praise is crucial to maintaining trust and when we trust we relax and we belong.
My final action as an expression of praise for my colleagues is to prepare them for the day when I am no longer there to lead them. The biggest expression of this praise is to prepare them this well before I leave.