A Bit of Perfume

Giving Praise

© iStockphoto/DamirK

"To see things in the seed, that is genius", said Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher. This is what we now refer to as Appreciative Intelligence, a term coined by Tojo Thatchenkery to describe the capacity by certain individuals to see the positive inherent potential of situations or people – it is the ability to see a breakthrough product, top talent, or valuable solution of the future that is not readily visible in the present situation. In short, it is the ability to see the mighty oak in the acorn.

The term originated when the author began studying the explosive entrepreneurial growth in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. According to the author, it is appreciative intelligence that allowed, partly, for so many highly talented immigrants from different countries to assemble in the area and flourish. As the author puts it, venture capitalists looking to fund the right ideas were asking the question, "How can I make this work?" as opposed to "What are the chances this idea will fail?" They created an environment of high anticipation of positive results which became a contagious fever of opportunity, achievement, resilience and possibility recognition. (Appreciative intelligence is not to be confused with appreciative inquiry, which is an approach and methodology for analyzing organizations).

Appreciative intelligence is a mental ability of individuals who have a knack for reframing situations (the glass half full/half empty) and a keen eye for spotting what's valuable and positive in a situation or in people. And these individuals go one step further: they are able to envision how the positive aspects can be used to create a better future. Combining the two in an organization, i.e. a leader with appreciative intelligence using an appreciative inquiry approach, constitutes a powerful force indeed for effecting positive change and inspiring others to give the very best they have to offer. Imagine if all leaders in an organization proactively and mindfully practiced appreciative intelligence. Imagine the profound, healthy impact that this would have on an organization's culture.

Such a culture would fuel employees' motivation. Surveys of what employees want consistently rank "appreciation for work well done" high up on the motivation index – well above "good wages". Ironically, managers often place good wages above appreciation in their responses of what employees want. Other surveys show that one of the reasons employees leave companies is because of lack of praise and recognition. Leaders often talk of the challenge of building trust in their organization. Adele B. Lynn's study on trust in the workplace shows that 54% of those polled would work for less remuneration if the following trust building factors were present:

  1. Importance: giving people a sense of importance about who they are and about their role in the organization;
  2. Touch: feeling that the leader genuinely cares about them, feeling a connection with the leader;
  3. Gratitude: being appreciated for their contributions and sacrifices; receiving genuine gratitude;
  4. Fairness: knowing that leaders ensure equal and fair distribution of rewards.

Recognition and praise are indeed high octane fuel for the soul. When we receive a genuine compliment, we experience an inner glow – it's a warm, magical feeling that makes us break into a smile. It makes us want to go the extra mile for the person who bestowed the sincere compliment. If this were not important to us, we would not be treasuring all of the mementos of awards, plaques, appreciative notes and emails, and other tokens of appreciation that we receive over the years.

But intuitively, we all know that genuine appreciation is a key factor in our relationship with our constituents, and any basic management course will touch on the value of praising employees for their contributions. Yet many well-meaning and otherwise caring leaders are reluctant to express their appreciation of others' talents and contributions.

Many years ago, I worked for a great leader, one who genuinely cared for his constituents, and who confided in me one day that he found expressing praise a very difficult thing to do – publicly and even harder, privately. I asked him why that is. He said, "I grew up in a household where praising was not something we did." There is a profound implication in this statement. Our families are our first corporations – that's where we learned many of our behaviors, and it is often difficult to break these ingrained patterns. Withholding praise, however, is a pattern of behavior that we need to unlearn if we want to bring the best out in people. We need to get over the embarrassment that grips some of us when we have to praise an individual.

Here are some pointers for practicing this important skill:

  1. If you have difficulty praising others, analyze the root causes of this. If it is a fear of embarrassing others, know that even the most introverted individuals who shun public praise enjoy reading an email to all staff about their contributions. If it is a discomfort at not knowing how to do it, read the few simple rules below and consider working with a coach for one or two sessions on this most important aspect of a leader's communication repertoire. Self-awareness precedes self-management.
  2. Sometimes, withholding praise is simply due to a lack of time for leaders who are required to handle an ever increasing number of issues during the course of a harried day. If this is your challenge, I encourage you to reframe how you view this particular issue. Showing your people you care about them needs to move up on the list of items in your "to do" list. It takes less than 10 seconds to say, "I appreciate the time and thought you put into this report. It is exceptional. Thank you."
  3. Praise has a limited "best before" date. Don't delay its expression or wait until performance review time – when you see something that is worthy of praising, do so promptly after the event.
  4. Make your genuine words memorable for your constituents by being specific about the achievement. Not many of us remember the perfunctory "job well done", but we all would remember someone who tells us "This was pure genius," or "I would have missed this if you hadn't picked it up." The praise does not have to be elaborate. It just needs to be genuine.
  5. When you drop by an employee's office or cubicle to deliver the praise, don't follow that with a conversation about business matters or other projects. Deliver the praise and leave. Come back later for discussions on other matters. This gives the praise its moment of honor and heightens its value in the eyes of the recipient.
  6. A primer for rewarding and recognizing others is Jim Kouzes' and Barry Posner's Encouraging the Heart: A Leader's Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. The book provides 150 ways to encourage the heart. Another useful book is Steven Kerr's Ultimate Rewards: What Really Motivates People to Achieve (Harvard Business Review Book Series). The book outlines many different sources of motivation including accountability, responsibility, organizational culture, coaching, teamwork, incentives and goal setting.
  7. Finally, how can you apply the dynamic concept of appreciative intelligence on yourself? What are your talents? Practicing appreciating our talents and gifts opens us up to appreciating others' greatness.

Perhaps the ultimate appreciation is letting people know that their work – no matter how far removed they are from the top of the pyramid – is important to the organization. It's about making everyone feel like an owner and helping them understand how their work contributes to the overall purpose of the company. It's about practicing seeing more people. Excellence involves everyone.

There is another lovely Chinese quote that says, "A bit of perfume always clings to the hand that gives roses." As leaders, when we make people feel great about themselves, paradoxically we elevate ourselves to greatness as well.

Copyright © 2006-2014 Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com.

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