The art of giving praise and constructive feedback


How to motivate staff

People & stories, 28.02.2020

“Getting no criticism is praise enough” is still the norm of many managers. But is this the right strategy to motivate staff to give their best? Management consultant Marco Nink reveals how praise and constructive feedback can fuel motivation, and talks about the mistakes that should be avoided at all costs. 

“Keep up the good work, Taylor!” says the boss, and accompanies the comment with a friendly pat on the back. Any manager who thinks this ticks the requirements box for praising employees is mistaken. Well-worn phrases and a quick word of praise in passing are unlikely to hit the target at an emotional level and will leave staff feeling disappointed. “Praise and recognition are the most valuable tools to show you appreciate people and can really turbo charge the motivation of the employees concerned,” says Marco Nink, who prepares the annual “German Engagement Index” survey on employee motivation for management consultancy company Gallup.
 
But giving praise is a skill that needs to be learned. “If your praise is non-specific and scattered around like confetti, you are defeating the objective,” warns Nink. A manager must show primarily that they have taken a long, hard look at the work of the employees concerned. Appreciative comments should be honest, authentic and backed by reasoning. A manager must also find out the way in which individual employees like to be acknowledged – where one likes comments to be made in the presence of colleagues, another prefers a personal discussion, and yet another a written message. Nink believes it is very easy to find out which kind of approach is needed for each person. He advises managers to ask their employees what is the most satisfying praise and the worst feedback they have received in their careers so far.

Negative feedback? Yes, please!

Whether it is appreciation or criticism, Marco Nink is sure of one thing: any kind of feedback is better than none at all. It is the only way, in which the employees can receive direction and guidance. They then feel they have been noticed – which, in itself, is a form of appreciation. If there is no feedback, their enjoyment of their work may dry up. They see no reason to make an effort; they lose their emotional ties to the company, and are well on the way to “mentally” resigning from the job. But if these employees receive regular praise for good work, they will constantly try to perform well in the future. Such employees perform their work with heart, hands and mind, and are an economic boon for their company.
 
In contrast, more than 5 million employees in Germany (14%) have already tendered their “mental resignation” according to Gallup’s “German Engagement Index” for 2018. The study found that only 15% of employees experience a high emotional attachment to their employers. Some of the reasons for this include management’s inability to make proper use of praise and constructive feedback.

Major obstacle: constructive criticism

In the experience of management consultant Nink, many managers simply forget to express their appreciation. Some are slow to give praise, or even have the attitude that “getting no criticism is praise enough”. But even negative feedback is frequently withheld, because providing constructive criticism is an art that not everyone instinctively masters. If there is something to criticise, a few rules should be observed to ensure the employee can learn from it: criticism must be given in a calm and factual tone of voice. The behaviour to be criticised should be described precisely, rather than being hastily interpreted. Managers should in dialogue with the employee also determine the reasons for the behaviour and find solutions.

Maintain regular discussions

Nico Biesenbach knows that the findings of the Gallup survey on employee motivation and management behaviour are more than mere theories. As head of a sales unit at ERGO with 14 direct employees, and more than 300 external sales partners, he makes very conscious use of appreciation and constructive criticism, and has had nothing but positive experiences with this approach. Every four to six weeks, he has a discussion with his direct employees. The most important requirement for him is to create a good atmosphere for the discussion and approach the topics very objectively. “Emotions are not appropriate in this situation,” he says. “Critical points must be addressed openly, otherwise feelings just build up and then detonate like a bomb.”
 
If Nico has something to criticise, he describes what he has observed and asks the employees if they see things the same way, and what might be the reasons for the situation. Then they look for solutions together and agree objectives. “In many cases, the interview partner is grateful that I have broached the subject and presented a way of managing things better in the future,” he says.
 
But Nico also knows what a powerful effect praise can have. “I ask the employee what they are proud of, and can then add a word of praise myself,” he explains. “But I primarily focus on how employees approach things, not necessarily on what they have achieved. Younger and new employees in particular should be praised for their positive approach, even if their work results are not quite on a par with more experienced colleagues.”
 
Nico Biesenbach sees praise primarily as the ideal way to generate additional motivation and encourage the development of the employees concerned. “If I praise someone and succeed in conveying criticism in a constructive and positive way, the employee’s future performance is often better than you might have expected. And for myself it is a validation of the approach if employees develop well and are happy to have a coffee with me when they change department or even if they move to another company.”
 
This article first appeared in German on the website zeit.de on 21 January 2019.

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