In Praise of… Praise!

Google “feedback is a gift” and you’ll find enough quotes to fill a high school yearbook. While skeptics might disagree, there’s no denying it: providing direct feedback is one of the most powerful tools managers have for developing staff. In this article of our feedback series, we’ll help you give better praise.

Praise can feel like icing on the cake. That’s why it’s often one of the first things to fall off a busy manager’s plate. In this article, we’ll talk about how to be a sincere and thoughtful giver of praise, and why praise matters.

For starters, praise isn’t just icing; it is a key ingredient for developing and retaining staff. Positive reinforcement done well can take relationships, performance, and engagement to the next level. When other people direct our attention to our own strengths or moments of excellence, it helps us learn even better than when we focus on our weaknesses.

In our introduction of CSAW (Connect, Share, Ask, and Wrap up), our framework for giving feedback, we talked about how to give corrective feedback to someone you manage. Let’s take a look at how CSAW can work with praise:

Step Key Points Example
Connect over a shared value Acknowledge the things that put you on the same team, such as shared goals, values, or experience. I know how important it is to both of us that this pilot is a success and I see how hard you’ve been working over the last few weeks.
👀 Share a specific observation about a behavior or action and name the impact. Focus on the things that are in their control (behavior, not character!).

Connect their action to its consequences on you, the team, and/or the work without overstating or exaggerating it.

You’ve done a great job wrangling a bunch of different stakeholders, getting them on the same page and bought in, and moving forward without missing any deadlines.

Because you’ve done such a great job representing us and building relationships with our coalitions partners, they seem so much more eager to work with us than they have in the past. Also, since I haven’t had to be as hands-on as I expected, I’ve been able to focus more on fundraising.

💬 Ask questions Probe into their successes so you can identify the key conditions or actions that helped them exceed expectations.

Give them the opportunity to ask for help or support.

What made you think to approach it that way?
What has been most helpful to you in getting this work done?
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?
What would you say are the top 1-2 things you did to make this a success?
Is there anything I could be doing to support you?
Wrap up with next steps Celebrate the success and find a time to check in again. Keep up the great work! Let’s check in again in two weeks.

As with all feedback, it’s more important that managers give praise regularly and thoughtfully than that it’s perfect every time. Use CSAW as a framework, but don’t make it a production every time. The more you systematize it, the more natural it will become.

For managers who can’t seem to find time for it, try any of these:

  • Give praise once a month during your check-in
  • Set up a biweekly 15-minute block on your calendar to think about the acknowledgment and/or praise you want to share
  • Shoot off a praise email once a week.

If it doesn’t feel natural and you’re worried about coming across as insincere, you can do one of two things:

  1. Focus on being brief, specific, and factual (“you moved everyone along while making sure everyone got to weigh in”).
  2. Share the personal reaction or feeling that their action elicited from you (“the needs statement in your last grant proposal made me feel even more inspired by our work”).

You can also start by using the mode of communication that comes most naturally. The point of giving praise is to make sure your staff (and colleagues) feel valued for their work and contributions to your team, and it doesn’t need to look the same every time.

*Hat tip to Uncommon Schools for this helpful distinction.