When I speak to large groups about leadership, one question I often ask is, “How many of you have ever received a compliment from your boss that actually offended you?” Without exception, more than two-thirds of the people in the room raise their hands. When I probe further on what people found offensive about their boss’s praise, the most common responses I hear are “It wasn’t sincere” and “They didn’t know what they were talking about.”
When leaders look like they are just applying some “motivational technique” they read about, people see right through the superficial, obligatory effort. It looks like they are checking off the “I motivated someone today” box. Motivation is not something you do to people. People ultimately choose to be motivated — when to give their best, go the extra mile, and offer radical ideas. The only thing leaders can do is shape the conditions under which others do, or don’t, choose to be motivated. But the final choice is theirs.
Unfortunately, too few managers understand this, and so there is a gap between managers’ efforts and the results they’re getting. A 10-year study of more than 200,000 employees shows that 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason, and according to Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report, only 21% agree their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. Here are three of the most offensive forms of “motivating” I’ve seen managers employ, and three alternative approaches I’ve seen work wonderfully.
Drive-by praise. Busy managers often have to squeeze in their recognition efforts to already crowded schedules. So they’ll pop their heads into people’s offices on the way to other meetings and say things like, “Hey, great job this morning at the pipeline review.” Or they’ll send a text message saying something like, “Hey, sorry I wasn’t able to catch you before I left, but just read through the updated analytics and they look great. Thanks!” On the surface, these efforts seem innocuous, perhaps even positive. But to recipients, it can feel impersonal, uninformed, and inadequate if these drive-bys are the only form of recognition the manager offers.
Making stuff up. During a break from an executive team meeting I was facilitating, I watched one executive say to his direct report, “Just so you know, I was telling the big boss and his team this morning what an amazing job you’re doing,” and then give him what appeared to be an “I’ve got your back” wink. The only problem is that it never happened. And from the looks of it, the employee’s feigned smile — “Wow, you did that for me?” — suggested he didn’t buy it either. Employees know when their managers are being insincere or outright lying. Whether these made-up stories are well-intended or not, they erode the employee’s trust in the leader.
Guilt gratitude. It’s incredibly awkward when a manager who feels guilty tries to overcompensate with effusive expressions of appreciation. Leaders who may have asked for a sacrificial effort to meet a deadline will reflexively say things like, “You have no idea how much I appreciate this. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t gotten this to me today. I owe you!” Or even worse, if their guilt is particularly intensified, they’ll do it in public, which feels especially manipulative. They’ll check off their “public recognition” box — a commonly suggested technique — by saying something like, “Can we all give Jennifer a round of applause for that killer presentation she pulled together?” A more truthful acknowledgement would have been, “Can we all give Jennifer a round of applause for that killer presentation she pulled together, which I neglected to ask her for until 8 PM last night because I forgot about this morning’s customer segmentation review?”
The common shortfall among these misapplied approaches is that they all serve the leader who’s giving the praise, not the recipient. If you want to direct your good intentions into more-meaningful expressions of recognition, consider these alternatives.
Ask for the story. Nothing affirms an employee’s great work more than a leader saying, “That was amazing. Tell me how you did it?” By asking for, and listening intently to, the story behind an accomplishment, you acknowledge that the contribution is an extension of its contributor and help them feel that they, and their work, really matter. By honoring the story behind the work, you honor the results as well as the employee who reached them. You also get a view into the person’s mind: how they problem-solve, where they have doubts, what parts of the work they love, and what makes them feel proud. Those insights become invaluable later. When you make assignments, you’ll know what will be most gratifying for that person.
Contextualize gratitude. Employees lower in an organization often can’t see how their efforts contribute to broader strategies. One survey shows that only 47% of employees can make the connection between their daily duties and company performance. Rather than taking for granted that those you lead fully appreciate the larger context into which their efforts fit, take the time to teach them. Tell them you appreciate their efforts not just because of how you benefit but also because of how the larger organization benefits. For example, say a manager gets his team to adopt a new technology platform as part of a beta test. You might explain that this effort is contributing to a broader change management initiative across the company and that it’s setting a great example for those resistant to the change.
Acknowledge the cost. No substantial contribution comes without personal cost to the one making it. Whether they sacrificed time with family, took on the emotional toil of doing something new, or bore the political risks of a highly visible project, let people know that you understand the toll it took. Most employees hide any struggle that accompanied their efforts for fear of looking weak or incompetent. Acknowledging the challenges they may have faced makes your gratitude more credible, and makes it safer for employees to be honest with you in the future when facing difficulties.
It’s a leader’s job to create a recognition-rich environment in which those they lead choose to give their best. That starts by ensuring recognition genuinely serves the needs of those you’re offering it to, not your own.
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