Motivation in Management: How Much Praise Is Too Much?

by Nov 2, 2021Culture, Diversity, Growth, HR, Talent

Every leader’s goal should be to find that Goldilocks just right amount.

One of the things I struggled with the most was motivation in management. Was I doling out enough praise to those employees who reported to me? I can now see that I was stingier than I should have been. Part of the issue was that I personally don’t need a lot of praise — so I projected that onto others. I was also worried that if I praised too much, people would become content and stop pushing hard. That was a mistake.

You can contrast my approach with that championed by Dale Carnegie in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie’s advice is to lavish praise on everyone to establish a reputation for them to live up to.

I’m sure you have friends or have met people who have taken Carnegie’s advice to the extreme. These are the people who praise you for everything — even showing up on time for a meeting or tying your shoelaces. It’s like getting a participation trophy; everyone wins. The catch with taking this approach to praise is that you risk diminishing the impact over time.

So, if you can give too little or too much praise, how much is enough?

The key, as I have learned over time as a leader, is finding that “Goldilocks Zone” of praise where it’s just right.

1. Find the happy medium

My concern as a leader in terms of giving out praise was that I thought people would back off. In other words, the more I praised them, the more I worried they would back off and not push as hard. I can now see where I was wrong about that.

The sweet spot or happy medium is somewhere between the extremes of my old approach and the Dale Carnegie model. Those of us stingy with praise need to give more, while others need to dial it back a notch. Even better, when you do hand out praise, the goal should be to make it highly specific.

You might say, for example: “Hey Pam, you did a great job with that engagement with XYZ company. To be honest, I wasn’t sure we could get it done. But thanks to all your extra effort and hard work, we pulled it off. Thank you so much for that.”

As my example shows, the better you attach the praise to something specific the person accomplished, the more effective it can be at encouraging similar behavior in the future.

2. Driving the right behaviors

On the flip side, as a manager or leader, you need to be cautious when you hand out praise because those behaviors will be repeated.

For example, I had an engineering team in one company I ran that had the bad habit of letting deadlines creep up on them, which resulted in a mad scramble at the end to keep on schedule. That meant our engineers would be killing themselves pulling all-nighters and working until the last minute to finish the job.

I distinctly remember one time when I found one engineer in the morning who had collapsed in the middle of the night and slept next to his machine. While his work effort was admirable, the quality of his work suffered, and the final product had a ton of quality issues that we suffered through for months.

So, rather than praise him for his extra effort, I didn’t say anything in our next company meeting. I then pulled him aside and explained why I hadn’t praised him: I wanted him and his team to work in a more timely and scheduled manner. He didn’t like it, but the message was loud and clear.

3. Learn to speak your employee’s love language

Another aspect of handing out praise to keep in mind is that everyone responds to one of the five different “love languages.” That means you need to take a customized approach when praising whoever is sitting across from you. Some people might need a lot of praise on a regular basis, for instance, while others, like me, need less. There are also others, like salespeople typically, who would rather trade praise for cold hard cash as a reward for their hard work.

Again, the idea is that you need to dole out praise in a way that works for both yourself and your employees. Find that Goldilocks Zone of handing out just the right amount of praise for what your employee wants and deserves.

If you can do that, you’ll find that you can take your leadership and motivation skills to the next level — and get the kind of performance from your people that you want at the same time.