Take a moment to consider your last month of work. In addition to all the invoices, shift scheduling, order placements, hiring, payroll, and all of the other myriad tasks and responsibilities that fall to you as a manager, how much time have you spent praising your employees?

If you answered, “Not much time,” consider yourself in plentiful company. With so much going on behind the scenes, many managers struggle to find the time or lack the tools to provide employees with positive feedback. And yet, management research consistently tells us that providing employees with praise and recognition on genuine accomplishments is a key ingredient in the secret sauce to happy, productive employees. Recognize your employees for the good work they do and praise them often, and you will have lower churn rates and a more dedicated, satisfied, and loyal team.

But, not all praise is created equal. Here, we take a look at some tried and true best practices that have you praising your team the smart way in no time at all.

1. Praise in Real Time

When you witness exemplary customer service from one of your employees, is your instinct to “bank” feedback for later use? If you are like many managers busy with all of the day-to-day tasks of running a business, then your answer is likely yes. With so much going on during the workday, it can be hard to stop what you are doing to mark excellent work. After all, your employee didn’t do a bad job, so what’s the rush?

Experts tell us that a best practice in employee recognition is to praise in real time, or in as real time as is practical. Your employee will respond much more positively to in the moment feedback, when the example that impressed you is fresh in his or her mind. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense: Your best employees are probably providing stellar customer service all the time. How likely are they to remember the specific instance that looms so large for you? On the other hand, employees who struggle can benefit from in the moment praise that helps them understand what doing a good job looks like in your eyes.

Instead of withholding praise for the perfect moment, make it your priority to provide praise and recognition when you notice praise-worthy behavior. You can do this in a variety of ways and venues – a quick conversation in the hallway, dashing off a quick email of thanks, or in a more public venue such as a team meeting. For employees whose work schedules vary from day to day, it is particularly important to praise in the moment, given that the next time you see them might be in a week! Remember, you can always return to the praise-worthy instance at a later time, but you’ll never be able to go back to the moment when it will be most impactful.

2. Be Specific

I like what you did back there. Nice job! Thanks for being you. All of that is nice to hear certainly, but what these kinds of workplace platitudes are missing is substance and specificity. When providing positive employee feedback, context and details are key. Praise that lacks specificity might make your employee feel good in the moment, but it isn’t useful to grow that employee and it doesn’t give them the tools to replicate excellence in the future.

Next time you catch yourself giving well-intentioned yet vague praise to one of your employees, challenge yourself to do more. Effective employee praise should include a when, a how, and a why at the very least. Let’s look at some examples of praise that checks of all of these boxes:

“I was impressed with how you handled that situation at table 5 earlier in your shift. That customer was really upset and you listened to her complaints with compassion and respect. That is the type of service we should all be providing to our customers in every interaction.”

“Your name came up at our regional meeting today several times. Several folks in the leadership mentioned that they have heard from customers that you go above and beyond in your work. I saw that today when you went out of your way to help fulfill that rush order. Your work makes me very proud to have you on my team.”

Though brief, the two examples above are specific, descriptive, and perhaps most importantly, let a valued employee know that their contributions are meaningful.

3. Hold the Constructive Criticism

Effective employee praise is best served with a side of…praise. Many managers use praise as an avenue into providing constructive criticism. As we think about why praise is best served solo, let’s look at an example closer to home to make sense of why this is:

“Thanks so much emptying the dishwasher, honey! If you approached every task so diligently, the house wouldn’t be such a mess all the time!”

You get the picture – praise that is always fettered to criticism has diminishing returns. Why do great work in the first place, if the target is always moving and just out of each?

Rather than using praise to offset constructive criticism, carve out dedicated time to provide employees with feedback on areas in which they can improve. This doesn’t mean that you can never mix praise and constructive criticism, such as during a workshop or employee review, but it does mean that when you are praising to motivate and incent, you should avoid muddying the waters with criticism, however well-intentioned.

4. Praise Outside of the Box

Think of that one employee who is always going above and beyond. She always picks up the slack, is there to trade or cover shifts, and you can count on her to solve problems creatively and promptly. If you are doing this whole praise thing correctly, you are probably recognizing her excellence consistently. Whether you provide this recognition in the form of financial rewards or public recognition, your best employees are those who push themselves. You can be sure that after the hundredth appreciative email or gift card, these employees will be looking for something more. (Or worse, they might start looking for somewhere more!)

Instead of showering your best employees with praise for what you know they have already mastered, consider praising outside of the box. Think of creative ways to recognize their contributions to your team that go beyond “Good job.” For example, you might ask the employee to mentor new hires, to take on some employee recruitment responsibilities, or to learn a new skill that adds value to the business such as managing social media accounts. These types of employee recognition strategies do much to develop your best employees, while encouraging them to stay on board.

When praising outside of the box, however, make sure that you let your employee know why you are giving him or her this new responsibility so that it doesn’t seem like a punishment. Take the time to let him know that you want to play an active role in his job development because of his proven track record of success. Take a look at the example below to see this type of praise in action.

“You’ve been with us for a while now and your performance has always been stellar. You are a team-player and I am impressed with how quickly you pick up new skills. Because you are such an asset to our team, I would love it if you would consider mentoring some of our newer employees so that they can learn from the best.”

Take aways

Providing your employees with substantial and effective recognition isn’t a skill that you can developed overnight. If what you’ve learned here seems like a lot to take on at once, consider implementing just one of these tactics at a time. In no time, you’ll find that these strategies become second nature and that the effort it takes to execute them repays itself in spades in the form of happier, more productive, and more loyal employees.

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