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How to Arrange Praise

Say you hold a regular meeting and each person there is to report on their metric or project. Some of them are ahead and can prove exceptional performance. Others are on track to meet their goals competently. And a few are struggling for various reasons.

How do you manage their reports and your input to make sure that everyone leaves energized and appreciated? It all comes down to arranging your praise. 

Balance Yourself First

To get yourself into the right mindset, consider something that Gallup found in an international study: the chances that your A-player right now will still be an A-player next year is only 1 in 3. People move in and out of A-player status. Everyone on your team is important, and getting better work out of them is the most cost efficient business development you can do. 

So it’s your job to make sure that you keep your A-players at a high level, and that you give everyone else a clear path to becoming an A-player themselves.

Doing that really comes down to how you manage a meeting when they all report. Structure sets you up for success, so ideally everyone actually does have a metric or a project. The more clearly you define expectations, the easier it is to manage people. Clear expectations are respectful by default because you’ve asked a team member to accomplish something specific, and you’ve tried to give them everything they need to succeed. That way, no matter where they stand relative to their goal, their stature does not arise from your judgement. It arises from their performance.

But you’re the leader, and so what you do will affect everyone else, and your influence is magnified during a meeting where each person there repots on their status.  You need to arrange your praise to maximize the positive effect you can have on each person’s performance. Let’s go through them one at a time.

A-Player Praise

Of course, the A-player deserves his moment in the spotlight. Providing that, in fact, is one of the main things that motivates people to excel. While he or she reports on their status, your questions ought to focus on “how” and “why,” with the express intent of helping others at the meeting improve their problem solving skills. You need give space for this, but you also need to prevent it from becoming a negative experience for others. “Real resentment can build, due to the perception that the boss is favoring the rock star,” HBR reports, if too much time and praise is heaped on too few.

That said, it is also important to realize that your “stars tend to be very needy and require more praise and reassurance than your average employee.” If you trim their wings too much at the meeting, you might send the wrong message to your star player. There’s no magic bullet to get this right, but the more aware of the dynamic you are, the better you’ll be able to handle it.

On-Track Positive Feedback

People who are on track to hit their goals should be treated in a similar manner, but with a couple modifications. You want them to report on their status proudly. Since they are clearly doing their job, support that sense of pride by expressing your appreciation. Keeping them focused on their goal, you can also ask leading questions about how that goal might be expanded for the next quarter or the next project.

Red Zone Rescue

And finally, for those behind, you need to change gears quite a bit. “How” and “why” questions will sound punitive, so avoid them. If you’re using RESULTS, you’ll be able to see past performance graphed on their goal, and often you can find a silver lining if you look for relative improvement. If the employee begins pouring out reasons why they can’t succeed, listen quietly until they begin to repeat themselves. It’s possible that they are right, so acknowledge that. If they aren’t – if, for example, the A-player has the same metric – avoid trying to convince them that they’re wrong. Instead, ask them what you can do to support them and to help them. Remind them of what they’re doing right, and get them thinking in terms of handling the problem rather than listing obstacles. 

Keep It In Scope

The entire interaction that you’ll have with each person at this meeting will be measured in minutes. The most important thing you (or someone) should do during that time is to highlight a least a couple things from each person’s update. If you ask a “why” question to an A-player and their answer isn’t already in their notes, then add it in so you can refer to it at the next meeting. If an on-track person gives you an update that indicates they might beat their goal, highlight that part of their notes. If someone struggling asks for a resource, note that as well, so at the next meeting, you can ask if it helped.

At no point during any of this have you discussed anyone’s personality, work ethic, commitment or anything else that might seem judgmental. You kept the discussion focused on business results, and you made records directly related to business results. This frees people at all three levels to think about their job and not their feelings. A-players will get the rush they need and will know how to get it again. Those on track will feel safe and appreciated. And those behind will feel supported and valued and motivated to get out of the red. That’s how arranging your praise can produce bottom line results.