If you’re a well-versed modern manager, you are probably regularly giving your staff positive feedback, with appreciative comments, compliments and praise. After all, it’s not only a reflection of your humanity as a manager, but also a sure way to encourage greater motivation.
But Mattison Grey, a Houston-based leadership coach and author with consultant Jonathan Manske of The Motivation Myth, says you’re mucking it up. Your words of praise are likely floating past your staff, not even being received as significant, or worse, creating resistance and anger in the recipients.
The reason is simple: Your comments seem self-centred, about you rather than the recipient.
“The compliments, praise, appreciation, and recognition are not about the recipient but about the giver – what I appreciate, what I praise, what I want to compliment. The receiver receives the message: ‘It’s not about me,’” Ms. Grey said in an interview.
She believes that is why a recent Gallup survey found that 65 per cent of workers said they had not received any positive feedback in the previous year. Ms. Grey said that when she saw that number, she couldn’t believe it because it didn’t jibe with what she sees in the many workplaces she visits. Managers are regularly providing positive feedback, she said.
But perhaps, she speculated, that feedback is never heard: It’s not really about the recipients and their work, it’s about the values, priorities and needs of the boss.
“Managers are doing the best they can with the tools they have. But they’re missing a tool that actually recognizes results and actions, and that people will hear,” Ms. Grey said.
That missing tool is acknowledgment. Managers need to simply acknowledge, in an appreciative tone, what the employee has done, without adding any judgment or any story about how it has helped the boss or the company.
This may seem like only a modest twist, and initially it may feel awkward for managers to adopt. But the simple acknowledgment of good work makes it about the doer and the accomplishment, not the person providing praise, she said.
Take the example of a typical manager, delivering praise in the typical way: “Joe, I appreciate you got the project done on time and on budget. It really helps the company.” The comments are received as being about the manager and the company, and how they were helped, not about Joe’s good work.
Instead, the boss should say: “Joe, you got that project done on time and on budget.” This may seem underwhelming, almost insulting. After all, Joe knows he got the project done on time and on budget; he may well feel that he always completes projects efficiently, so why is the boss stating the obvious?
“When people try to figure this approach out with their heads, they say things such as ‘It’s insulting,’ or ‘It won’t work.’ But if you experiment with it in reality, it’s a completely different experience,” Ms. Grey said.
“It’s hard for managers because it’s just so simple it doesn’t make sense to our highly-developed, problem-solving minds. Go out and try it.”
The approach will seem clunky at first and takes several weeks to feel feel normal. Here are some tips she offers:
Don’t use the word “I”
“I appreciate that you completed the project on time” is a no-no. If you have trouble finding the right wording, you can use that model but drop the “I appreciate.” Simply say, “You completed the project on time.”
Don’t embellish with a story about what the employee’s feat means, since that will be about you or the company. Workers will supply their own back stories, reflecting reality as they see it. You may be praising their long hours, for example, while they’re thinking about how they learned some effective shortcuts.
Make it specific
Focus on what the person accomplished. And make it about something that has been completed, not a plan or something in progress.
Make it short
The shorter the acknowledgment, the more impact it will have.
Focus on one thing at a time
Don’t pile a bunch of acknowledgments into a single jumbled sentence. Don’t say: “You arrived on time, brought the papers to sign, brought an extra pen, and picked a convenient place to meet!” Instead, acknowledge each feat separately, with short pauses between each. “You arrived on time!” Pause. “You brought the papers to sign!” Pause. And so on. The recipient gets to think or say, “Yes, I did,” four times.
Listen and acknowledge
If you’re in a situation where you have no idea what to do or say next, simply acknowledge what is happening. If the person is upset, acknowledge that fact. If he or she is happy, acknowledge it. If you listen carefully, people will always “tell” you what they want to be acknowledged for.
“Acknowledgment is like any tool: The more you use it the better you get at it,” Ms. Grey said. “The people around you are literally starved for acknowledgment. Feed them.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter