Praise a potent motivator at work

The Duke of Wellington, the brilliant British military leader who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was a great commander, but he was a difficult man to serve under. He was a demanding perfectionist who rarely complimented his subordinates.

In retirement, the duke was asked by a visitor what, if anything, he would do differently if he had his life to live over again.

The old duke thought for a moment and then said, “I’d give people I worked with more praise.”

There’s a lot of power in praising people. British novelist Arnold Bennett had a publisher who boasted often about the outstanding work of his assistant. Waiting on an appointment one day at the publisher’s office, Bennett approached her and asked, “Your boss claims you’re extremely efficient. What is your secret?”

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“It’s not my secret,” the assistant said. “It’s his.”

She explained that the publisher never failed to acknowledge and appreciate every task she performed, no matter how routine or seemingly insignificant. Because of his attention and praise, she took great pains to deliver good work all the time.

When you sincerely praise someone – and there must be truth in that praise – something amazing often takes place. Something starts to grow and change in the other person, and your relationship often becomes deeper and more fulfilling as a result.

My good friend, the late leadership guru Warren Bennis, said: “In experiment after experiment, the workers who thought they were doing better did better.

“In one experiment, 10 people were given puzzles to solve. They were all given fictitious results. Half were told they had done well. The other half were told they had done poorly. They were then given a second test, and this time they all did as well or as poorly as they were told on the first test.”

With all the praise and recognition employees seem to crave, you think it wouldn’t matter where or how you give it. But it matters a lot. Managers who don’t bother to get to know their employees on a personal level will not be successful at this task. Managers must also avoid the appearance of favoritism by considering how much public praise they give the same people time and again.

Making praise a truly effective motivational tool requires a little planning. The purpose of workplace praise is to improve productivity and reinforce positive behavior. Keep these notions in mind:

Be specific. Don’t just offer cliches or platitudes. For instance, if you’re pleased with how Susan satisfied a complaining customer, don’t just say, “You handled that well.” Give some detail that tells her exactly what she did right: “You were wise to let the customer vent his anger and then offer good, constructive ­solutions.”

Be honest. Don’t offer praise unless you can do it sincerely. Passing out superficial praise can hurt your credibility instead of improving performance and morale.

Be timely. Praise loses its impact if it’s not delivered close to the event. Tell the person what you appreciate right away.

Be balanced. Praise also loses its effectiveness if it’s overused. On the other hand, its power diminishes if it’s underused. Give extra attention to new employees, those who seem to lack confidence or team members testing the waters with new assignments. Focus on those making an extra effort, accomplishing a difficult task or exhibiting behavior you want others to emulate.

Be encouraging. Express your hope that the person will continue doing praiseworthy work. Thank the person for his or her efforts. This helps send the message that you’ll like to see the person’s performance keep improving along the same lines.

Mackay’s Moral: Well-deserved praise improves the best of days.

Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website,