When I first planted a garden, I learned a hard lesson about fertilizer. I had a patch of beans that sprouted but stalled, and some Googling suggested they needed fertilizer to grow and produce. I bought some liquid fertilizer, and the directions on the package told me to pour half a cup of the stuff in an applicator and spray it on with the hose. I decided that if half a cup was okay, 2 cups would be even better, so I mixed up an extra-generous batch and doused the beans good. I know, you veteran gardeners are already shaking your heads as you see the words “extra-generous”, but I was a rookie in the process of making a rookie mistake… I soon discovered that fertilizer is powerful stuff and too much of it can be worse than too little. It can burn things up, and within 24 hours, every one of my plants was shriveled and dead. It turns out that praise, too, is potent stuff and it needs to be applied in the right quantity to achieve great results. If a leader misses the mark to either side bad things happen.
Too little praise leaves people impoverished, and when their personal motivation and momentum wanes, their performance stalls. They may start strong, but when their effort and engagement goes unrecognized, they lose their vigor or they wilt when things get tough and the heat and competition rise. Fortunately this is relatively easy to fix— apply more recognition. Take note of people’s effort and productivity and recognize it more specifically and personally. Reallocate some of your attention and give it as a gift to those you lead. Turn up the quantity and application of praise because being miserly with it will starve your people and stall productivity.
Too much praise is a different problem. When we are too generous with our praise, the expectations can get muddy and productivity can suffer for very different reasons. People have a tendency to calibrate their standard of what is expected based on what is praised. More specifically, praise tends to indicate that something exceptional, something above and beyond expectations, has been done. This means that praising people for simply doing their jobs well can be confusing and run the risk of actually lowering their estimation of what that job actually entails. Instinctively, leaders who want to maintain high standards of excellence are wary of praising people for simply doing their jobs, but this doesn’t mean that they should take effort and engagement for granted. Here’s a simple tip for recognizing people’s contributions without running the risks of over-praising: say thank you.
Thanking people is different than praising them, but it is no less powerful or personal. While praise tends to recalibrate expectations, gratitude tends to reinforce them. For example, saying: “Thank you for doing a good job on this. Our success depends on this kind of effort and I appreciate it” recognizes important contributions without recasting them as unexpected or “above and beyond”. Similarly, saying: “Thank you for working so hard on this. It’s exactly what we needed!” recognizes the effort of the recipient in the present without tempting them to dial it back in the future.
In the end, its your ability to strengthen and sustain people by recognizing their contributions that will enable them to grow and produce as you hoped. Take a little extra care in this process and you’ll reap the rewards.