Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
For nearly three decades I worked on a variety of corporate-change projects. Every year during that time, the HR departments of most of the companies I worked with would dutifully administer a corporate-wide employee-satisfaction survey. And each year the results would come back the same. Of course, not everything would be the same. Some years employees reported that their bosses were veritable bastions of egalitarian good will. On other occasions respondents painted the big wigs out to be authoritarian cretins who deserved to be placed in stockades and pummeled with rotting tomatoes.
And yet there was always one survey finding that never changed. No matter the time or place, no matter how large the company or how profitable the year, employees reported that they were not adequately praised for their accomplishments. They were always dissatisfied with how their bosses treated their noteworthy achievements.
And so every year I’d start a campaign. “It’s time to praise people for their accomplishments,” I’d mutter in meetings and murmur in memos. In a good year I’d even produce a training module, complete with video snippets of attractive actors effusively praising smiling employees for their noteworthy accomplishments.
And then the next year, just like clockwork—no matter what I or anybody else did—the results would come back the same. Nobody believed they had been given the recognition that they had deserved. It was if the seven-point scale used to measure employee satisfaction mysteriously collapsed to a three-point scale whenever the word “praise” appeared in a question.
I found this inability to move the needle particularly troublesome in light of my own experience with the importance of praise. My interest in positive reinforcement all started in the streets of Rio de Janeiro in the late 1960s. At that particular time I was working in Brazil and had just read Dale Carnegie’s superb book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Recognizing the genius of the book, I decided to put some of Mr. Carnegie’s advice into action. At one point he suggested that we all need to be more generous and effusive in giving praise—we should even praise strangers. So that’s what I decided do. I’d praise a stranger.
That very day as I rode a bus that raced through the crowded backstreets of Rio I came across an opportunity. Here we were twisting and churning in this filthy dilapidated bus—feeling very much as if we had been crammed into a dangerous carnival ride (only on a carnival ride you never really think you’re going to die)—when I noticed a young man selling bus tokens. Despite the fact that passengers were screaming at him as he struggled through the teeming crowd, the young man was smiling. He counted back change quickly and professionally. You could tell he took pride in his work despite the fact that it paid less than a dollar a day.
So I complimented the fellow for a job well done. I told him that I had seen hundreds of transit employees sell tokens, but he was the fastest and most courteous I had ever observed in action. The young man smiled so wide and real that I’ve never forgotten his look of appreciation.
Later I learned that this beaming token seller had started the job two years earlier at the tender age of fourteen and this was the first time anyone had ever said anything nice to him. He was so appreciative of what I had said that he wouldn’t take my money. In fact, for the next two months that I worked in the area he never took my money.
With this poignant experience never far from my consciousness, the annual survey results that demonstrate praise was being rationed like sugar during World War II cut me to the core. So each year I’d renew my commitment to teach leaders the importance of recognizing people for their accomplishments, and each year the numbers would remain unchanged.
Then it hit me. Perhaps leaders weren’t clear about what to do. After all, giving praise can be a delicate interaction. It can even backfire. People can become upset when one person is recognized, but they aren’t. Or maybe they don’t value your opinion or they don’t trust you. For instance, as a young Coast Guard Ensign I once praised a group of employees for the wonderful work they had done that year and much to my surprise the crowd fell completely silent. The awkward silence was only broken when someone barked that I was merely trying to manipulate them—and nobody laughed. Despite the fact that my words had been heartfelt, the repressive work environment endemic to the times had smothered my best intentions.
Recognizing the importance of praise, along with the fact that it can be difficult to deliver, I’d like to share a specific form of praise that I became aware of one day quite by accident and that, for me at least, has always led to smiles all around—no matter how unhealthy the broader environment.
I became aware of this tactic one day when the company I worked for held a party to which I invited my parents. At one point the president of the company stopped the festivities to say a few words. He then offered a toast to my parents, thanking them for having raised me so well. Next he launched into a short speech covering all of the things I had done to help the company succeed. He couldn’t say enough good about me. My parents hung on each syllable as if it were being carved in the mountainside. Mom and dad lunched off those kind remarks for years to come. Those expressions of appreciation sincerely shared with my parents comprised the kindest gift I’ve ever seen offered by a corporate executive and may well be the one method for offering praise that can survive any corporate culture.
That evening at the party, as I watched the effects of those words of appreciation shared with loved ones, I promised myself that whenever an employee who reported to me stopped by my office to introduce his or her parents, I’d pay the gift forward. I’d gush about the person’s contribution to the company just as my boss had gushed over me.
And I’ve been true to my promise. For example, when my chief editor’s parents stopped by to meet me, I told them of her invaluable contribution to everything we do. She’s brilliant, she’s dedicated, she’s loyal, and she’s been a blessing to us. When our new product developer’s kids came by to trick-or-treat at our offices, I took the chance to tell those kids (as their mother listened in) what a joy he has been to work with. I suggested that if his children were like mine, they might not have a clear idea what their dad did when he went off to work each day, so I’d tell them. I explained that each morning he puts on a cape and becomes a superhero—that’s what he does. Every single work day he brings the much-appreciated creative and writing talents we need. He is talented, witty, fun, and a blessing to all of us.
And I meant it. I meant it about both of them. I also meant it about all the other employees who over the years have taken the time to introduce me to their parents, spouses, or other close relatives.
So, at this time of year when most of us are resolving to improve ourselves in some way, improve your ability to give praise. Thank the close relatives of those who work for you for sharing their loved one’s precious time and talents with your company. Lay on the praise with a trowel. Wrap it up with a broad smile. No matter the person’s background or beliefs, no matter your company’s circumstances, I can think of no better or more credible way of meeting people’s burning desire to be sincerely recognized for their stellar performance.