Please Hold Your Praise

September 10, 2020

Have you ever had a conversation with your manager that started as praise and ended up with you having more work? Or, worse, feeling like the praise was a pretext, to soften a criticism, that in one form or another left you feeling that you weren’t doing enough?

Have you ever done that as a people leader yourself? As you bring your team back from the most anxiety-producing summer holiday in most of our lives, it’s a critical moment to get the praise thing right. It starts by learning how to hold your praise — by holding the moment in which you give it.

Let’s start with the opposite scenario: What does it look like when you don’t hold the moment? A member of your team completed a project ahead of schedule or hit a number that’s been previously out of reach. You’re in a meeting or on a video call with them, and you say: “Good job on reaching that goal.” Praise delivered, right? Not yet.

What you did was start a praise conversation. Whether that praise lands, and whether it brings further dividends hinges on what you do next. Here’s how you can turn a general statement of praise into a transformative conversation:

  1. Stop traffic. We’re moving so fast it’s easy to drive right by the win, missing the opportunity to deepen your culture. It might sound like this: “So, let’s stop there for a moment and talk more about that. This was a nice win, and I want to make sure, as hard as we’re all working, that we stop and celebrate the good stuff.”
  2. Ask them to talk. Most people, especially talented ones, are eager to jump back into their inbox. Not because they don’t want praise but because it makes them uncomfortable to receive it. It’s a growth edge for most people to receive recognition without pushing it away or, conversely, letting it inflate them. “I’d love to hear how it made you feel to accomplish that. I know I’m putting you on the spot, but I want to make sure you get how important moments like this are. (Bonus points if you put them in some productive discomfort in front of the team.)
  3. Deepen the impact. While your team member will have their own words for how the win felt, you will almost always have a chance to take it deeper. If you stay present, you’ll see there’s context you can offer that might seem obvious to you but likely isn’t for them. You can help them see how this isolated accomplishment isn’t isolated at all. Show them how it ripples out, or could, to another project or team.

As a modern people leader, one of the core elements of your role is to help people make connections. Sometimes that’s in connecting their day-to-day work to a larger objective. Sometimes that’s in connecting a personal struggle to a professional one. Sometimes, as it is here, that’s in connecting them to the impact of something they’ve already done.

You can spend your life in your inbox, checking off tasks and moving onto the next one, but you’ll miss the moments that bring teams together. You’ll miss the moments that bring the people on those teams closer to themselves. Because, with everything going on around us, it’s in the moments where we experience ourselves having a positive impact on the world that can make the difference between feeling a part of something or feeling isolated and disconnected.

What if half of what you wanted to see change on your team could happen by focusing everyone’s attention on the things that already are? What if, by doing that, you’d give them an experience of work that left them hungry to see what they could do next?

You don’t have to exaggerate or pretend. You don’t have to be dramatic about it. All you have to do is hold the moment for one beat longer than you otherwise would.

Watch how much energy gets released when you do.

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