The 5 Best Ways to Praise Employees

Last Updated Jul 22, 2011 1:53 PM EDT

Think your "Employee of the Month" program is a great way to recognize performance?
Think again. Praising an employee should:
  • Boost their confidence and self esteem, and
  • Reinforce positive behaviors, and
  • Reward their effort and accomplishment, and
  • Build their motivation and enthusiasm...
Can a special parking spot, or a photo in the newsletter, or a $20 gift card really accomplish all that? Nope.

Here are five great ways to praise employees:

1. Ask for their help. Asking another person for help is possibly the most sincere way to recognize their abilities and value. Why? Asking makes us vulnerable: We admit weakness or need or a lack of skill. Ask employees for help and not only do you show you respect their skills, you also extend your trust.

The key is to ask for help partly or totally unrelated to their function, and to make the assistance relatively personal to you. I once returned from a corporate meeting where layoffs had been discussed. I proposed alternatives to cutting staffing but was unsuccessful. By the time I got back word had already spread throughout the plant that layoffs were imminent. Just before the plant meeting one of my employees said, "So, layoffs, huh?" I didn't have to confirm it; he knew. I said, "I have no idea what to tell our employees. What would you say?"

He thought and said, "Just tell everyone you tried. Then talk about where we go from here."

Simple? Sure. But powerful. Later he told me how much it meant to him that I had wanted his opinion and took his advice.

2. Ask for their ideas. Again, make it somewhat unrelated to the employee's function. For example, don't go the typical, "Do you have any ideas regarding how you can do your job faster?" route. Instead, build off skills or insights they possess to use them in other ways.

Say an HR employee is incredibly organized. Say, "I'm always impressed by how organized you are; I wish we could clone you." Then ask if she has thoughts about how to streamline warehouse processing, or streamline the paperwork involved in hiring new employees, or how another department could handle data collection more efficiently. Not only will you get great ideas, but you also recognize skill and ability in a more meaningful way than simply saying, "Wow, you're awesome."

3. Create informal leadership roles. Putting an employee in a short-term informal leadership role can make a major impact. Think how you would feel if your boss said, "We're swamped... and now we have this huge customer problem. If we don't take care of it we may lose them. Can you grab a few people and handle it for me?"

Informal leadership roles show you trust an employee's skills and judgment. The more important the task, the higher the implied praise and the greater the boost to their self esteem.

4. Do something together. Since you're the boss, you and your employees are on unequal footing. A great way to recognize an employee's value -- especially their value to you -- is to tackle a task together.

Years ago my boss said, "I'm thinking of joining Toastmasters to improve my presentation skills. Would you be interested in joining with me? Might be good for both of us..." I was flattered he asked, flattered he saw me as someone who would someday need great presentation skills....

What you choose to do together doesn't have to be outside of work, of course. The key is to do something as relative equals, not as boss and employee. Unequal separates; equal elevates.

5. Play Priceline.com. Congratulate an employee for a job well done, then let them name their "price." Say, "You did an outstanding job; what can I do to reward you?"

You might be surprised by how simple the reward they choose will be.

Bottom line: Verbal praise is always great, but implied praise can be even more powerful. Asking for help or ideas, putting an employee in charge, dropping hierarchical roles and working together... each is a powerful way to recognize the true value of your employees.

And to show you trust them -- which is the highest praise of all.

Related: Photo courtesy flickr user US Department of Labor, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.