Many years ago, my supervisor, Marc, called me in to his office.
I was racking my brain. Had I done something wrong? Was I in trouble?
I sat there, tense with anticipation.
And then, it happened:
Instead of rattling off a list of what I was doing wrong, Marc outlined a bunch of things I had been doing right—and encouraged me to keep up the good work.
It was exactly what I needed. It built my self-confidence and also built trust between Marc and me. Here was someone who actually saw the good in me, saw my potential, and wanted me to succeed. But that alone is not what made the praise so effective. Besides being authentic, it was also, importantly, specific.
Most research about the value of specific praise has focused on children.
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, for instance, has explored the benefits of praising children’s efforts (“You did a good job reading”) as opposed to their character or ability (“You are so smart”). The specific praise, in this case praising the effort made, proved superior in motivating children to continue to work hard in the future.
Some years later, Dweck went on to assist another psychologist, Andrei Cimpian, in another study that further supported the idea of praising specifically. In this study, the researchers found that children who received specific praise (‘‘You did a good job drawing’’) were much more resilient to criticism than those who received more general praise (“You are a good drawer”). In fact, those participants who were praised specifically performed better at future tasks than their counterparts.
In my experience, this principle also extends to the workplace.
When you are in the habit of telling employees how much you appreciate the good things they do, it becomes easier to correct the bad things they do. You can do so with confidence that your messaging is well-meaning and balanced. Meanwhile, your specific praise makes it easier for your employees to receive correction, too.
For example, when the time came for Marc to give me negative feedback, I was all ears. There was no need for him to mince words or weaken his message, because Marc had already gained my trust. His praise was far more valuable than the figurative pat on the back, or a simple “good job.” By identifying my specific strengths, he gave me something solid to build on, and built trust that whatever he had to say was in my best interests. So, when Marc gave me corrective feedback, I tried my best to put this into practice, too.
That’s the power of sincere and specific praise. When you take time to get to know your people and what they’re good at, you prove that you’re not simply going through the motions of commendation, but that you’re invested in them. When facing difficult times, they’ll not only remember what skills and abilities they can fall back on, but that you took time to notice these things specifically. Confident that you’ve “got their backs,” they’ll see you as a mentor, making them more ready and willing to receive constructive criticism.
Everyone is talented at something. If you become good at telling people what they’re doing right, they’re bound to do more of it. And they won’t forget the fact you noticed.