In Praise of Praise

Here’s this month’s piece from neuroeconomist Paul Zak. For those who might dismiss some of our thinking as the “soft side” of management, Paul puts “hard science” behind it.

Generation Y may be the most coddled generation of Americans, according to several recent books and surveys. Millennials get more attaboys than previous generations combined.

So, if you praise your team to motivate them, has this recognition lost all its power?

Peter Drucker wrote that for knowledge workers, it is critical to develop rewards, recognition and career opportunities to keep them engaged in their jobs.

I agree. But neuroscience research, some of it from my lab, has shown that the type and setting of praise matters. The highest impact comes from praise that is public, unexpected and tangible.

Public praise of a colleague who went above and beyond the call of duty invites discussion of others who contributed to the successful outcome. No one works in a vacuum, and the person in the spotlight will nearly always recognize others who helped him or her. This not only provides additional praise, but it reinforces the importance of teamwork.

If done during a weekly all-hands meeting, public praise provides the opportunity to discuss best practices: Why did a colleague have to go to such extraordinary lengths? Was a crisis pending? How do we avoid this in the future?

Talk is cheap, so it’s also important to recognize excellence with something tangible. The end of the year bonus is great, but the unexpected small gift provides the brain with a fillip of reward. When this is done publicly, the brain magnifies the reward through the interplay of the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine. Yes, this means that you should spring for the occasional Starbucks or iTunes gift card to give away. It’s a small cost to reinforce high performance.

The corollary of praise in public is critique in private. Failure is an opportunity for colleagues to learn and should be viewed as such. The sooner you can diagnose and discuss what went wrong, the stronger the representation in the brain, so don’t waste a lot of time arranging meetings to discuss a failure. Just do it.

I still am not good at this, but once I’ve committed to pulling off the Band-Aid fast, I lose that sense of dread that we all have in anticipating how a struggling colleague will react. Sooner is almost always better than later.

Remember, too, that it’s not just Millennials who need feedback; we all need the reward of praise. Millennials seem to be better at working in groups than do older employees, so feel free to recognize groups that excel, as well.

You’ll spur greater job satisfaction and higher performance. And if you do that as a manager, allow me to be the first to say: Well done!

Paul Zak is the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of The Moral Molecule.