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Want to scale up? Then start praising your staff!

Saying thank you. Noticing a job well done.  Spotting positive behaviour. These make a massive difference to staff engagement.  And yet, in many businesses, opportunities to praise come and go without any proper thought or recognition.

Why is that?  Maybe it’s a cultural thing.  In some organisations, it’s like praise has been engineered out of the fabric of the workplace.  Maybe, it’s down to our education system dwelling too much on weaknesses rather than strengths. Whatever it is, it’s a sad reflection on working life.  According to Gallup, two-thirds of staff can’t recall recent praise or recognition. That’s just miserable!

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find praise hard.  It just doesn’t come naturally. This hit home last week as I completed my Gallup Strengths-Coach Certification.  One of the top five strengths in my profile is Achiever.  No surprise there. I’ve always driven myself hard and thrive on goals. But Empathy was bottom of my list of thirty four themes. Praising people isn’t outside my comfort zone – it often just doesn’t occur to me.  This praise blindspot is the backhand or the darkside of Achiever.

I don’t think I’m alone. The characteristics that led me to become MD of three fast-growing tech companies will be shared by CEOs and MDs across the UK. In fact, Achiever is the most common of the 34 strengths and is shared by 30% of the global population. This matters. If praise is your weakness, you need to work on it.  Like any muscle, it takes regular effort to build along with a deliberate approach. Get this right and you could unlock up to 40% discretionary effort in your staff. Effort that can make a massive contribution to your company’s growth. 40%! Think of that.

So how did I get around my weakness?  How do you create a culture of praise and celebration in your business?

    Make praise deliberate

    Before you do anything else, you need a framework. This is critical.  In order to praise effectively, you need to know what it is you want to praise.  And it’s all about your company’s values. I’ve written before on how to create these, but they boil down to defining the behaviours you want to see in your business.  Linking a few behaviours to each value helps to be crystal clear about what you really expect. From my interview with Liz Robinson from Big Education, I have realised that behaviours also need to be taught.

    If you aren’t clear on the behaviours you want, prioritise time and effort to work them out.  When I’m coaching clients through this process, I use the Jim Collins, ‘Mission to Mars’ framework. I get them to imagine we’re building an outpost of their company on Mars. But there are only five seats on the rocket-ship. Who would they send? Who best represents the DNA of their company? Who has the highest level of competence and credibility with their peers?

    Everyone writes down the names of their five nominations. Once we’ve reached an agreement, we talk about why they’ve been chosen.  What are the behaviours they exhibit? These are the things you want more of in your organisation so they should form your framework.      

    When I go into organisations that haven’t defined a framework, it’s like they have no shared vocabulary for what ‘good’ looks like.  They can rate their staff on job performance, but when I ask whether someone’s a good cultural fit, the conversation gets really grey.

    Make praise specific

    Once you have a behavioural framework, you can ensure praise is laser-focused.  It’s not enough to say, ‘Good job – well done!’ You need to identify and call out the specific thing that you want to see more of.  If you have absolute clarity on this, it will make any corrective discussions much easier.

    We’re all aware of the power of positive reinforcement.  Whether it’s in your children, your spouse or your staff, giving your attention to positive behaviours you want to encourage can work wonders.  I’m reminded of a recent article I read about a university lecturer whose students decided to test this. Every time he walked to one side of the lecture hall, they yawned, looked bored and stared at their phones.  When he walked to the other side of the hall, they made notes, listened attentively and looked interested. By the end of the lecture, he found himself pinned to one side of the room without really knowing why. The power of attention.

    Ask for help!

    I’m the first to admit that I’m cr*p at praise.  It was a standing joke in the places where I’ve been MD.  But admitting this and asking for help made a huge difference. I could see how important it was to praise and the difference it made to engagement.  So I got the team to help me.

    They kept their ears to the ground, to spot when someone had been helpful, or solved an issue or went above and beyond.  Armed with this information, I made a deliberate point of giving praise every, single day. I knew how transformational it could be to do this and saw its effect with my own eyes.  It was particularly powerful when I noticed more subtle things like someone’s diligence in finishing a project on time – the unremarkable stuff of everyday working life. It’s easy to notice the big, dramatic moments, like someone working through the night to fix a problem, but you also need to notice when people are quietly doing their job well.

    Focus on strengths

    To build a culture with praise at its heart, you need to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.  Once you’ve defined the behaviour you want to see, ensure that both and you and your managers double-down on the things people are doing well.

    Gallup use a great analogy for this when they’re rolling out their strengths-based framework.  Imagine you’re a parent whose child comes home to tell you they’ve got 8 A grades and 1 C. Do you focus on the C, grilling them about what went wrong?  Or do you praise them for the 9 As? This will tell you a lot about your attitude to praise and motivation.

    Any perceived weaknesses need to be viewed as a barrier to maximising people’s strengths.  I love the way culture app company Next Jump give feedback to their staff in meetings. They have a specially designed, real time app to handle this.  Anything that impacts on a member of staff’s ability to do their job is flagged up. They call it your ‘backhand’. Opportunities are then created for staff to work on their backhand outside their regular day job.  For example, any employee who struggles with speaking in public is asked to lead culture tours around the company. By doing this, they deliberately practice their public speaking skills in a way that isn’t revenue impacting.  Fantastic idea!

    Make praise second nature in management

    In 2008, consultancy firm Towers Watson published the results of a Global Recognition Study which showed that praise and appreciation were the most important factors for building trust within teams.  40% of respondents who felt unappreciated said they didn’t trust their manager. And managers who made a habit of praise saw increases of engagement of 60%.

    Your managers need to make praise part of their daily routine.  It needs to become second nature. I’d even say, the ability to give focused praise should be a prerequisite for promotion to management. Before you appoint, look for evidence of their ability to give positive reinforcement.  Research shows that great managers have a ratio of 5 positive interactions to every 1 negative. This is what they should be aiming for every day.

    Like me, there will be managers who find praise hard.  Some will be doing it naturally, others will need to be deliberate.  But to create a high performing environment, you’ll need all managers to be pulling their weight.

    Introduce an award scheme in your business where staff can give points when someone outside their team has been particularly helpful.  We did this at Peer 1 and it gave us valuable data that identified which managers had successfully built a positive, engaged culture.

    Create a rhythm of celebration

    Ah yes – rhythms.  Here we are again! They are just so important to drive cultural change.  Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly – you need to embed a regular rhythm of praise and celebration.

    When I was MD of IT Lab, we had an ‘all-hands’ meeting every month where each of the managers said three positive things.  They were briefed to catch people doing the right thing and call this out, giving awards wherever possible.

    This was combined with a weekly email from the CEO, again putting a positive spin on what had happened that week and what was being planned for the following week. By using a ‘carrot not stick’ approach, we modelled the sort of behaviour we wanted to see in the organisation and taught staff to understand what was expected of them.

    At Peer 1, we introduced a system where public ‘thank you’s’ became the norm, accompanied by a round of applause. It became a regular thing and was hugely powerful for staff motivation.

    One of the most important questions of the Gallup Q12 measure of staff engagementis ‘Have you received praise in the last 7 days’.  You want all your staff to give this a 5/5 score. Gallup reverse engineered high performing teams for this tool and worked out the importance of this question to their engagement and productivity. If all members of a team give this a high score, it means praise is institutionalised and you’re moving towards a high-performing culture.

    In my Melting Pot Podcast next week, I talk to Nic Marks, founder and CEO of I’ve wanted to interview him ever since he worked with the Cameron/Clegg government to create a metric for UK Gross Domestic Happiness. DoFriday is a staff engagement app he created on the back of this work.  It measures happiness as a way of getting to engagement.

    Staff are asked, every Friday, how happy they’ve been that week at work, calling out any irritations, stucks or stresses that have annoyed them as well as things that have gone well.  Then, every Monday morning, the team reviews the results, going through any problems but also giving opportunities for public thanks and recognition. A regular routine that gives a platform for celebration. Nic told me that the team at Friday have now worked with 9,000 teams across 1,000 organisations. From the data they’ve gathered, its evident that teams in the top quartile for happiness are 22% more productive than teams at the bottom. And that’s in companies that value happiness enough to use the DoFriday app!

    I’m reminded of one of the first teams I worked in at Glaxo.  ‘Ken’s Kamikazees’ we called ourselves. Ken insisted we started every meeting with a piece of personal good news from everyone in the team and a round of applause. Initially, I hated it!  Was it really necessary? Such a fluffy, toe-curling thing to do – or so I thought. But you know what? He transformed a fairly ordinary group of people into the most successful team in the company, every year. The whole was so much more than the sum of the parts. I wish he knew how much I learned from being in his team.

    In the past, clients have told me they worry that if they praise too often it will lose its impact.  That’s a cop out! I have never worked in or visited a firm where team members complained of being over-praised.  I guess if that happens, you could recalibrate but, until then, you aren’t doing it enough – by a country mile.

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    Create a framework, make it deliberate and specific and tell your managers it’s what you expect from them.  Measure it to make sure its happening. Model it yourself, even if it doesn’t come easily. Push that fly-wheel and eventually it will start spinning on its own.  By making praise a priority, you’ll increase engagement and reduce staff churn. Your business will be a happier place to work and your teams more productive – that’s got to be a good thing, right?  

    Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse,  a certified Scaling Up™ Business Coach with a real enthusiasm for helping to scale up mid-market companies in Hampshire. Find out more about his work here.

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