Employee recognition isn’t easy. I mean, do you think you receive enough recognition for what you do?

I imagine the answer is no. Rarely do people think they get enough praise.

That is, of course, a problem. But there’s an even bigger problem where employee recognition is concerned. Rarely do employees receive the right kind of praise.

Motivating words are important to give and receive at work because they have a huge impact on how successful your employees—and your business—will be.

Prime example: The Daily Show writers’ room.

What motivates The Daily Show staff?

Trevor Noah’s writers’ room is full of 30 people (and a few dogs). The writers, actors, and producers go back and forth, playing off each others’ jokes until they get to something good.

And then Noah, the boss, says this to his head writer:

“I’m saying that joke you pitched, it was so good, like, even in the room.”

Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor at Wharton, recently stepped into Noah’s writers’ room on Grant’s podcast, WorkLife.

Grant observed Noah’s writers taking risks. Proposing crazy ideas that might, on the surface, sound stupid. Why were they willing to do so? They felt a sense of psychological safety—an atmosphere where people feel safe taking risks.

And that means they’re more creative. They’re more collaborative. They don’t censor themselves because they don’t have to.

And it all comes down to one surprisingly simple tactic: Giving people credit.

Says Noah, “I’ve always believed in crediting people where credit is due. Especially when you’re working in an environment where all of the praise is bound to be aimed towards myself…It just moves people forward as human beings to know that we are acknowledged in whatever we are doing.”

Noah believes it’s important to give credit to his team every step of the way—as often as possible. That’s why he even interrupts his team to make sure they get that credit in the moment.

In fact, giving people credit is the best compliment you can ever give. As long as you give credit the right way.

Lesson 1: Understanding input vs. output

So how should you praise your employees? Grant says people tend to “focus too much on outcomes and not enough on processes.”

Here’s Grant’s simple matrix for giving meaningful praise:

Positive outcomeNegative outcome
Shallow processLuck: Stop praisingFailure: Keep criticizing
Deep processSuccess: Keep praisingSmart experiment: Start praising

According to Grant, a shallow process (one where little effort took place) that has a negative outcome is considered a failure. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to provide critical feedback to an employee who failed based on a lack of effort.

But say an employee “wings” a sales call. They didn’t prepare, didn’t think through the value proposition, didn’t understand the customer’s real needs. And yet somehow, they still made the sale.

Shallow process, positive outcome = Don’t praise

The process was shallow. The outcome was positive—but based more on luck than effort.

That’s a situation where Grant says you shouldn’t praise the employee for the outcome. Why praise an employee for a good result that was based on a bad process?

Deep process, negative outcome = Praise

The same is true when the process was good—which Grant calls “deep”—but the outcome was not. Grant sees that not as a failure but as a smart experiment. And if you want to create a culture of learning and intelligent risk-taking, you should always praise smart experiments.

Acknowledge luck, but don’t praise it. Acknowledge effort, even if the result isn’t great.

Do that, and you help create the right mindset for your employees—and your company culture.

Lesson 2: Understanding growth mindset vs. fixed mindset

According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, most people tend to have one of two mental perspectives where talent is concerned:

1. Fixed mindset

This is the belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed. We “have” what we were born with.

People with a fixed mindset typically say things like:

“I’m not smart enough.”

“Data analysis is just not my thing.”

Faced with a challenge, people with a fixed mindset tend to think:

“I can only do what I can do.”

2. Growth mindset

This is the belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort—we are what we work to become.

People with a growth mindset typically say things like:

“I’ll get that if I put in a little more time.”

“If I work harder on my slide deck, I’ll make more sales.”

Faced with a challenge, people with a growth mindset tend to think:

“If I put in the work, I can do it.”

The right kind of employee recognition encourages a growth mindset

That difference in perspective is molded by the kind of praise you provide.

For example, say you tend to say:

  • “Wow, you figured that out fast. You’re so smart!”
  • “Wow, you solved that problem in five minutes. You’re amazing!”

While that kind of praise sounds great, think about what happens when employees don’t figure something out quickly. They’ll assume they aren’t smart. They’ll assume they aren’t amazing.

They’ll assume they are what they are. And when the going gets tough (as the going inevitably does), they’ll feel helpless because they’ll assume that what they “are” isn’t good enough.

And they’ll stop trying.

Praise employees solely for achievement or failure and you create a fixed mindset type of culture. You’re saying mistakes aren’t lessons learned. Mistakes aren’t worthy experiments. Mistakes aren’t an inevitable step on the path towards achieving great things.

They’re just failures.

So how can you build a growth mindset culture?

Praise effort, and you create an environment where your employees feel, with enough time and effort, that almost anything is possible.

How to master the art of effective praise

Recognizing your employees in a way that makes a real difference is easier than you think, especially when you use the following tips.

1. Never wait

The more time that passes between great performance and recognition, the lower the impact of that recognition. That’s why Trevor Noah literally interrupts his team to give people credit during rapid-fire brainstorms.

2. Be ridiculously specific

Generic praise like, “You did a good job today,” is certainly nice. But it’s not the best.

Specific praise is what you want to aim for. Don’t just tell an employee they did a good job; tell them how they did a good job. Not only will they appreciate the gesture, they’ll also know you really pay attention to what they do.

3. Actively seek opportunities to praise

As a leader, you’re used to spending the majority of your time looking for problems to correct.

Flip that around: Spend the majority of your time looking for achievement—and also effort—that you can praise.

4. Praise underperforming employees

It’s easy to recognize some of your best employees since they’re constantly doing great things.  (But it’s also possible that consistent recognition is one of the reasons those people are your best employees.)

Find ways to spread positive feedback. You might have to work hard to find reasons to recognize some of your struggling employees, but that’s okay. A little encouragement may be all a poor performer needs to turn around.

5. Make employee recognition a business metric

An old boss started every management meeting by having supervisors share two examples of employees they recognized or praised that day.

It wasn’t just for “doing a good job,” but for exceptional productivity on a certain production run. For catching a mistake made by another department. For stepping in to help a coworker repair equipment. For offering an idea that would improve the business.

At first, it seemed cheesy and forced, but we quickly embraced it. Plus, there was a nice bonus: Peer pressure and natural competitiveness caused a few of us to help our employees accomplish things worthy of praise—which gave us great examples of feedback given we could then include in performance reviews.

Remember: Recognizing effort is self-reinforcing. When you do a better job of recognizing your employees, they tend to perform better.

Which gives you even more to praise.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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