Praise is Potent. Do Not Exceed Recommended Dosage.

When I first planted a garden, I learned a hard lesson about fertilizer. I had a patch of green beans that sprouted but stalled, and some Googling suggested they needed some fertilizer to grow and produce. I bought some liquid fertilizer and the directions on the package told me to pour half a cup of the stuff in a garden sprayer and apply it to the beans. I decided that if half a cup was okay, 2 cups would be even better. So, I mixed up an extra-potent batch of bean-booster and hosed the plants down. I know, you veteran gardeners are already shaking your heads as you read the words “extra-generous”, but I was a rookie in the midst of making a rookie mistake… within 24 hours, every one of my plants was shriveled and dead. Fertilizer is powerful stuff and too much of it can be worse than too little. It turns out that praise, too, is potent stuff and needs to be applied in the right quantity to achieve great results. If a leader applies too little or too much. bad things happen to teams.

Too little praise leaves team members impoverished, and when their personal motivation and momentum wanes, their performance stalls. They may start strong, but when their effort and engagement goes unrecognized, they lose their vigor or wilt when things get tough and the heat is on. Fortunately this is relatively easy to fix— apply more recognition. Take note of people’s contributions and recognize them more specifically and personally. Reallocate some of your precious attention and give it as a gift to those you lead. Turn up the quantity and application of praise because being miserly with it will starve your people and stall their productivity.

Too much praise is a different problem. When we are too generous with our praise, expectations get muddy and productivity can suffer for a very different reason. People tend to calibrate their standard of what is expected based on what is praised. More specifically, praise often indicates to them that they've done something exceptional, something above and beyond expectations. This means that praising team members too emphatically for simply doing their jobs well can confuse them and actually lower their estimation of what that job actually entails. This might make you wary of praising people for anything but the most extraordinary achievement and you'll appear to take their effort and engagement for granted. That's not good. Here’s a simple tip for recognizing team members' contributions without running the risks of over-praising and lowering the standard of excellence: say "thank you."

Thanking people is different than praising them, but it is no less powerful or personal. While praise tends to recalibrate expectations, gratitude tends to reinforce them. For example, saying: “Thank you for doing a good job on this. Our success depends on this kind of effort and I appreciate it” recognizes important an contribution without recasting it as unexpected or “above and beyond”. Similarly, saying: “Thank you for working so hard on this. It’s exactly what we needed!” recognizes the effort of the recipient in the present without tempting them to dial it back in the future.

In the end, your ability to apply praise properly is worth more than a hill of beans. Your ability to strengthen and sustain people by recognizing their contributions not only prevents team members from burning out when the heat is on, but also enables them to grow and produce as you hoped!