The power of praise and recognition

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Written by The Toolkit for Managers on 18 February 2014 in Features

A look at why praise is so important and the impact it can have on workplace behaviour and performance

When it comes to motivating team members, offering praise and recognition for a job well done can be extremely powerful. 

Why do we need praise?

It's no secret that being praised often makes people feel good. Pride, pleasure and increased feelings of self-esteem are all common reactions to being paid a compliment or receiving positive feedback. This is because being praised triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. As well as making us feel good, dopamine can also contribute to innovative thinking and creative problem-solving at work.

These positive effects, however, are relatively short-lived, and for praise to have an enduring impact on employee engagement, it needs to be offered regularly. As Jim Harter, chief scientist at performance management consultancy the Gallup Organisation puts it: "recognition is a short-term need that has to be satisfied on an ongoing basis". Gallup's research indicates that employees who report that they are not adequately recognised at work are three times more likely to say they will leave in the following year.

The impact of praise

Psychologists and researchers have long been fascinated by the effects of praise on workplace performance and behaviour, and what this means for organisations. In 2004, the Gallup Organisation conducted a worldwide research project, surveying more than four million employees about the importance of praise and recognition. 


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Gallup concluded that employees who receive regular praise are more productive, engaged and more likely to stay with their organisation, than those who do not. The survey results also indicated that employees who are praised receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and even enjoy better health than employees who are not.

Meanwhile, The Carrot Principle presents the findings of a 10-year motivation study, in which more than 200,000 employees and managers were interviewed. In their analysis of the results, authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton report that when managers are considered to be effective at 'recognising' their employees, they: 

• have lower turnover rates than other managers 

• achieve better organisational results 

• are seen to be much stronger in goal-setting, communication, trust and accountability 

Gostick and Elton describe recognition as a 'simple but transformative act', and report a strong correlation between manager recognition and employee morale. Of the participants who reported the highest morale at work in Gostick and Elton's study, 94.4 per cent agreed that their managers were effective at recognising team members' efforts and achievements. Meanwhile, 56 per cent of employees who reported low morale gave their manager a poor rating for recognition.

In 2008, consultancy firm Towers Watson published the results of their Global Recognition Study, which reveals a strong positive correlation between manager recognition and employee engagement. The study indicates that even in organisations with a low-engagement culture (i.e. one where there are few development opportunities and employee wellbeing is not treated as a priority) manager recognition can still have a significant, positive impact on employee engagement.

In the report, the Towers Watson researchers reflect on the significance of 'uplifts' - positive experiences that boost morale and motivation at work. Offering praise and recognition for a job well done is one of the ways in which managers can create such moments for their team members. According to the report, managers who do this are more respected and admired by their employees. In addition, employees who experience uplifts at work are also more likely to say they are motivated to work harder and willing to go out of their way to help their peers or support their organisation.

Offering praise and recognition costs nothing, but studies indicate that it can even be as effective as giving employees a financial reward. In 2008, strategy consultancy White Water Strategies reported that being praised can have the same impact on job satisfaction as being awarded a one per cent pay rise. Meanwhile, the Japanese National Institute for Psychological Sciences has investigated the neurological impact of praise, discovering that being paid a compliment activates the same part of our brain as receiving cash! 

Delivering praise

There is a great deal of research to suggest that praising employees at work can be beneficial. However, the way in which the praise is delivered has a significant bearing on its effectiveness. The Gallup Organisation has pointed out that only genuine achievements should be praised, and that empty words have little or no value. Indeed, Gallup says that 'unearned praise can do more harm to an individual and a workgroup than none at all'. It not only prevents employees from knowing when they need to improve, but it can diminish the impact of the genuine praise that is offered at other times. 

World-renowned psychologist Carol Dweck has found that children who are praised for being inherently 'good' at something are less likely to take on new challenges than those who are praised for their approach to the task. When it comes to praising children, Dweck's advice is to 'focus on the processes they used - their strategies, effort or choices'. For managers, Dweck's findings highlight the value of constructive feedback; managers should be specific about which aspects of their team members' performance have particularly impressed them and why. 

There's little doubt that praising and recognising the efforts and achievements of others can bring about some very positive results in the workplace. Being praised makes the recipient feel good about themselves and this can help to boost their performance. Praise provides the kind of positive experience or 'uplift' that can increase employees' morale, motivation and engagement, and renew their commitment to their manager and the organisation. For praise to have this kind of impact, however, it needs to be delivered effectively. Only genuine achievements should be praised, and managers should ensure their feedback is constructive and specific. Further advice and guidance on giving praise effectively can be found in the Toolkit for Managers.  

Footnotes: To find out more about the sources used for this article, go to: 

Taken from the Toolkit for Managers, from The Corporate eLearning Consortium, with additional reporting by Susie Finch. Like this and want more? Download a PDF on executive stress from The Corporate eLearning Consortium website. 


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