Praise (n): the act of expressing approval or admiration; commendation; grateful homage.
We know that praise is important in the workplace. Praise boosts performance. It provides a positive experience or uplift that can increase morale, motivation and engagement. Recognition renews an employee's commitment to their manager and to the organization. Without it, employee's question whether their efforts are worth it, if anyone cares. In continuous improvement cultures, where we are constantly asking for more, praise is even more important. Leaders can get caught in a cycle of consistently demanding more tomorrow from their people without taking the time to praise them for all they do today. When that happens, it can feel like no amount of effort is good enough.
What is it that makes giving praise to others so hard? And awkward?
I remember when a work friend gave me a compliment on my outfit. I shrugged it off, saying something like, "Oh, well, thanks, but -- this is old and the only thing I had that was clean." She reached out and touched my arm, and said, "Am I not good enough for you to accept my compliment?" I didn't know what to say to that. I tried to defend myself. She interrupted, saying, "I know that wasn't what you meant. But next time someone gives you a compliment, just say thank you. You can let people love you whether you think you've done something to deserve it or not."
I will always remember that day. I've thought about it a lot.
As a kid, I learned to downplay my accomplishments. And up until my friend called me on it, I had been horrible at accepting compliments. It wasn't until I sang in a band that I was more or less forced to stand there and accept appreciation. At first, I hated applause, and wanted to run offstage to avoid how awkward I felt. Then I sang the National Anthem for my husband's 'welcome home' ceremony when he came back from deployment. I had sung the anthem for events before, but this was different. Because when I was finished, there was total silence. No applause. The packed auditorium was silent. There was no way for me to know whether my performance was good or not. Applause still triggers awkward feelings, but I've learned to stay and let appreciation in.
The rule of thumb for appreciation in the workplace is to praise publicly, but criticize privately. Still, when asked, people will say they prefer their praise in private -- or not at all, that they don't need to be recognized. I don't believe that. I think we all want to know that our efforts mattered to someone. Too often people go without recognition for too long, and when they do get some, they don't believe it's authentic. And then there's the "sandwich cookie" method of appreciation, where you sandwich criticism between two layers of praise. The intent is to cushion the criticism. It doesn't. But it does water down the impact of the praise.
To make matters worse, our self-talk tends to lean to the negative. We tend to think more about what is wrong than what's right or great about ourselves. We do that as a way to keep ourselves safe, as an act of self-protection. If we are critical of ourselves, it hurts less when others are critical of us -- or something like that.
Here's the thing: You have to give to get.
'You have to give to get' is one of the laws of giving. In this case, you give to yourself first -- like putting on your own oxygen mask on the airplane before helping others. When you give to yourself, you get something you can then give to others. You'll also find that when you give to yourself first, then to others, others will also give to you.
How do you start? With your self talk. Start noticing how you think about yourself, what the small voice in your heads says about you. Notice when it's not nice. When I first started monitoring my inner voice, I found I was using words that I would never say to a friend. As soon as you notice you are not being nice to yourself, interrupt. Stop the inner-dialogue. Replace it with something honest, but more kind. In Dare to Lead, as part of her BRAVING model, Brene Brown defines the G as Generosity: you extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others. You can practice generosity on yourself as one way to shift your self-talk. When you can be more generous with yourself, you'll naturally be more generous with others.
You can reinforce your new positive self-talk with affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements describing the person you want to be. Write these statements as if you already have the characteristics they describe, starting with the words "I am" -- the most powerful words in the universe. When I started working out, one of my affirmations was, "I am a person who works out six days a week at 6 am." On those morning when I didn't want to go to the gym, I used my affirmation to help me re-set my attitude and get myself to the gym. If you want to be a person who is generous with praise, write an affirmation about it: I am a person who is generous with praise, or I am generous with praise. Affirmations help you to sustain your determination and ward off negative influences. In time, you will become what you claim in your affirmation and you'll need the affirmation less. That said, you'll always have it to lean on when you need a reset or need to re-calibrate.
You could also try the paperclip trick. The idea is to put some number of paperclips in your left-hand pants pocket in the morning, and each time you praise or recognize someone, move one paperclip to the right-hand pocket. At the end of the work day, check the paperclips in each pocket and see how you did. If giving praise is difficult for you, you may want to start with one paperclip. When you are consistent about giving praise at least once per day, move up to 3. Or 5. If you get home from work with the paperclip still in the left-hand pocket, hand out that praise at home. Careful, though, that the praise you give is authentic, not forced, and that if you don't give it out that you are kind to yourself about it. No beating yourself about not complimenting others!
Let others praise you; wholeheartedly accept compliments. Your job when someone says something nice about you is to say 'thank you' and mean it. Let their praise land; let it soak in all the way to your bones. You don't need to agree or debate. Take in the applause, whether your performance was perfect or not.
Let people love you whether you think you've done something to deserve it or not. Then do the same for others. A little love goes a long way.
Photo: Copyright: Artur Szczybylo, 123rf.com