Symphony conductor Otto Klemperer was like a lot of the bosses I had coming up. He was a demanding taskmaster who never, ever, praised the musicians who played for him.
One day, though, the orchestra must have done an especially good job at rehearsal. Maestro Klemperer looked at them for a moment, gave a curt nod, and grunted: “Good.”
The musicians were stunned. For a moment they sat silently and then, suddenly, they broke into applause. Klemperer drew himself up and tapped his baton on the music stand for attention. The musicians quieted down.
After fixing them with a steely glare, the conductor snapped, “Not. That. Good.”
That was the way of the world years ago. Bosses thought praise would make you overconfident or weak or something. One evening in an after-work bull session, one boss told me, “They know when they do a good job. My job is to tell them when they don’t.”
Today, things are different, at least in theory. Everybody subscribes to the idea that praise is important. Or do they?
When I talk to bosses about the importance of praise, I get a lot of push-back. It’s like those old ideas are lurking just beneath the surface or the people I’m talking to are channeling their inner Otto Klemperer.
I think it’s because many of the people I talk with learned the craft from those old-school, “we-don’t-need-no-stinking-praise” managers. So they do it the way they learned it early in their careers. It’s human nature. And this is one case where it needs to be overcome.
Praise is like a powerful chemical catalyst. When you add it to your workplace, in the right way, both performance and morale improve. But you have to use it wisely and well to get the best results. Consider the following the “label directions” for using praise.
Praise the praiseworthy.
If you lavish praise on things that aren’t praiseworthy, it’s worse than no praise at all. Your team members will either think you don’t know good work or that you’re trying to manipulate them.
Don’t wait. Praise is perishable.
How often? I suggest at least three or four times a day, but don’t worry about numbers. If you try to catch people doing something right and praise them for it, you’ll do fine. Guess what? People do a lot of things right.
Praise the things you want team members to do more.
Praise progress, even if there’s no perfection. Praise effort.
Don’t praise everything good.
One strange thing about praise is that it’s best when delivered inconsistently. Besides, there are plenty of good things to praise without worrying about praising everything good.
Those are simple rules, but they can generate big results. Now, go and praise. Praise wisely and praise well.
More From Wally Bock
In addition to writing the Three Star Leadership blog, Wally Bock is an author, ghostwriter, writing coach and book doctor. In his past lives he has run a small publishing company, been a popular keynote speaker to audiences around the world, and served as a U. S. Marine. He loves good beer, good friends, and good stories.