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If you were a contestant on American Idol, back when Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul occupied the judges' seats, whose praise would hold more weight for you: Paula's or Simon's?

Chances are, praise from Simon, known for his constant cranky criticisms, would do more for your self-esteem than kind words from Paula, who was generally quicker to offer compliments.

It may seem like a distant comparison, but employees in the workplace are likely to react the same way to praise - or overpraise, as the case may be.

"If you got good praise from Simon, you know you deserved it," says Cori Maedel, chief executive officer of human resource consulting firm Jouta Performance Group in Vancouver. "If I know that someone is holding me to a standard that is solid 100 per cent of the time and they give me positive feedback, then I know it's genuine."

But Ms. Maedel is quick to add that she's not suggesting managers hold back the way Mr. Cowell seemed to.

Instead, she's talking about genuine praise, compared with words that roll off the tongue too easily, making them lose their authenticity. Praising employees when it's not genuinely warranted can devalue meaningful positive feedback when it actually does occur, says Ms. Maedel.

"If it's not genuine you're better off saying nothing," she says. "Feedback can be like junk food if it has no meaning," she adds, comparing it to empty calories versus actual sustenance. "It doesn't even permeate."

There's also the possibility that an overpraised employee will get too comfortable and stop trying to excel, says Else Pedersen, human resources consultant at Perceptive Edge in Toronto. "They'll think, 'I'm doing a great job, I don't need to do more,'" says Ms. Pedersen.

It also helps to be specific, says Ms. Pedersen. "Rather than just saying, 'Great job,' give an example of what they did and what the outcome was," she says.

Says Ms. Maedel, "If the feedback is not specific, it doesn't have impact because I don't know what was good about what I did. It doesn't reinforce the behaviour you want from me. At some level all employees want to do a good job. Praise me in the direction you want me to go and I will do more of it."

Managers must determine whether an employee is internally or externally motivated, says Ms. Pedersen.

"If they are externally motivated praise is more needed and valued by the employee. If they are internally motivated then you might end up overpraising."

The best way to gauge what an employee needs is to watch their reaction. "Do you see a rise in their productivity?" asks Ms. Pedersen.

Some employees will thrive on recognition alone. Others will appreciate a gesture such as a small cash bonus or a gift card, says Ms. Maedel.

Ms. Pedersen recommends delivering praise in person or by e-mail. "They can save an e-mail and read it now and again," she says. "This way they can hear your praise again and again when they feel they need it."

Praising publicly can also boost employees' self-esteem, if they're not shy or embarrassed by such a display, adds Ms. Maedel.

Mr. Pedersen suggests asking employees about their challenges and how they've overcome them. "A lot of employees will do great things and expect managers to know," she says. Simply asking the question can give way to opportunities for genuine praise.

She encourages managers not to shy away from constructive criticism, even when delivering praise. She suggests the "Oreo cookie" approach. "Start with the positive, then if there's room for improvement touch on that, and end with either repeating the original positive message or with a second positive message."

Over-praising, says Ms. Maedel, is far less common than under-praising. "Culturally managers have been trained to catch employees doing something bad," she says. "When praise is done well the return on investment is immeasurable."

Recognition by the numbers

58 per cent of employees at organizations with high engagement say they receive appropriate recognition (beyond pay and benefits for their contributions).

28 per cent of employees at organizations with low engagement say the same.

68 per cent of employees at organizations with high engagement say their manager takes the time to let them know their efforts are appreciated.

49 per cent of employees at organizations with low engagement say the same.

51 per cent of employees at organizations with high engagement say recognition is applied consistently through their organization.

21 per cent of employees at organizations with low engagement say the same.

Source: Aon Hewitt's Best Employers in Canada, 2006