Understanding how and when to praise determines how well it works

by Michael Haberman on July 9, 2014 · 0 comments


When delivering praise understanding the science will make it more effective.

When delivering praise understanding the science will make it more effective.

I came across an article written by Leigh Steere on 8 tips for effective employee praise. I found it to be a good set of tips for helping managers (and others) understand how to get the behavior they want to see.

Steere’s tips

Her tips for effective employee praise include:

  1. Stay in character. This means try to incorporate praise into how you normally conduct your day. If you do something different you may freak people out.
  2. Be specific. This means there has got to be some tie directly to the work behavior you are trying to reward. After all you are looking for a repeat of that behavior and you are not going to get it if you don’t identify it.
  3. Deliver the praise message by itself. It has to have an impact and if you mix it with other stuff you lose the impact.
  4. Be sparing. I will explain this below.
  5. Be self-effacing. She meant this allow you to say something to someone that accomplishes something you didn’t or couldn’t.
  6. Be sensitive. Understanding your employees is helpful. Sometimes giving public praise will get someone labeled as a ‘brown-noser’ and cause them some difficulty with their peer group.
  7. Make sure to acknowledge the right person. You had better be sure  you are praising the person who did the work and not the person that took the credit.
  8. Praise the good aspects of imperfect projects. Not everything is done perfectly. Sometimes progress is made however and you want to praise the progress.

You can read her article by clicking here.

The science of praise

When using praise it helps to understand the science behind how it works. Years of research on different organisms have shown the effect of reward and the impact different schedules have on that effect. Without a doubt the best promoter method to change behavior is the use of positive reinforcement. However, the research has shown that giving a reward is all the time is not the most effective method to perpetuate that behavior. If you have ever trained a dog you know that as soon as you stop giving them the reward the behavior may go away. Or if the value of the reward is diminished then it will no longer be effective.

In the science of operant conditioning it has been discovered that positive reinforcement delivered on different time schedules will have varying effects. The best method to deliver reinforcement that perpetuates behavior is on a variable-interval schedule. This means you don’t deliver the reward all the time or on a specific count. It is variable. This leaves the “organism” guessing as to when the reward is going to show up. Of course what you are going to do will dictate the schedule you use. If you are trying to get something learned the reward will need to come more frequently, later if you want it perpetuated you will deliver it more variably.

Praising employees

How does this affect how you deliver praise? Going back to Steere’s list tip #4 was to be sparing. This means you need to deliver the praise at variable intervals. Telling someone all the time how great they are will come across as insincere but will also lose its staying power very quickly.

In addition to being specific and praising the behavior you want as close to the occurrence of this behavior you also don’t have to recognize that good job each and every time.

If you follow’s Steere’s tips and use the science of reward you will be much more effective in getting and perpetuating the behavior (performance) you want to have all the time.


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