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Sunday MBA

Praise can go a long way in motivating employees

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from HBR Guide to Leading Teams by Mary Shapiro.

Recognition remains one of the top human motivators. It’s relatively easy to recognize the full team for good work, such as meeting goals and hitting deadlines. But it can be harder in team settings to recognize individuals. How can you give individuals their due while fostering the cohesiveness that comes when everyone works toward the same goals and follows the same rules?

“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” a Japanese proverb, comes to mind. Sadly, that’s what often happens to individuals who get a lot of praise from their team leader: Other team members might begin competing for the leader’s attention or, worse, sabotaging the work of the “pets.”


But you still need to give recognition to motivate individuals — and certain team members do regularly go the extra mile. Here are some tips.

Connect one-to-one

You can do lots of things to discreetly show your appreciation for individuals’ contributions. For starters, get to know each member personally. Find out about backgrounds, lives outside work, and interests. Does a team member bike for a cancer charity? If so, ask about her latest race and consider donating to the cause.

Learn about career aspirations, too, and pass along relevant articles, blog posts, or other information you come across. Introduce team members to people in your network who can help advance their careers. You might even sponsor them in professional development training or write letters of recommendation for school or fellowship applications.

You can also privately provide feedback, going beyond performance appraisals. One of the most powerful forms of recognition is to help people grow. Assign them challenging tasks, and coach them. Pass on positive comments you’ve heard from others. And give them as much time and attention as you reasonably can.


Written acknowledgments go a long way, too. Send a note of thanks, and copy senior management and human resources.

Include positive feedback

Make sure the team gives positive feedback in its accountability discussions. Don’t just focus on behaviors that should be added, dropped, or changed. Give recognition about behaviors that people should continue, and occasionally conduct a session devoted just to sharing positive feedback. Ask everyone to say what they appreciate about each team member. Try prompting people to comment on specific contributions as well as general strengths.

A design team at an engineering company conducted a positive feedback session immediately following a team failure. While the team pondered everything that contributed to this failure, its leader boosted morale by reminding people of the talents and strengths they brought to the new challenge. The appreciation helped team members see that they had the skills to be successful.

Share credit publicly

Visibility outside the group is another effective form of recognition. Consider having every member sign proposals and reports submitted by the team. Or ask every member to participate in final presentations to clients or senior management.

A senior scientist in a pharmaceutical laboratory saw a dramatic increase in individuals’ motivation (and, consequently, their contributions) when she changed how the lab credited employees. She didn’t like that only her name appeared on research reports and academic articles in medical journals. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to get junior scientists and research analysts to meet project deadlines. So she changed the lab’s practice. When team members could claim authorship, their motivation soared.


Think about your interactions with team members as bank transactions: Every time you give constructive feedback or hold someone accountable, you’re withdrawing from your account. Every time you give positive feedback or recognition, you’re making a deposit. You’ll want to be “in the black.” This means making consistent deposits. You’ll get a great return on your investment.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review.