The Duke of Wellington, the brilliant British military leader who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was a great commander, but he was a difficult man to serve under. He was a demanding perfectionist who complimented his subordinates only on rare occasions.

In retirement, Wellington was asked by a visitor what, if anything, he would do differently if he had his life to live over again.

The old duke thought for a moment and then said, “I’d give people I worked with more praise.”

When you sincerely praise someone — and there has to be truth in that praise — something amazing often takes place. Something starts to grow and change in the other person, and your relationship often becomes deeper and more fulfilling as a result.

With all the praise and recognition employees seem to crave, you think it wouldn’t matter where or how you give it. But it matters a lot. Managers who don’t bother to get to know their employees on a personal level will not be successful at this task. A shy individual may cringe if recognized publicly; others may take great pride in being honored in front of their peers. Managers must also avoid the appearance of favoritism by considering how much public praise they give the same people time and again.

So, should you go easy on the praise to avoid offending someone? No, you should instead learn enough about your employees to be able to tailor your praise to their situations.

Everyone likes a pat on the back and a hearty “well done.” Making praise a truly effective motivational tool requires a little planning. The purpose of workplace praise is to improve productivity and reinforce positive behavior. Keep these notions in mind as you hand out the compliments.

• Be specific. Don’t just offer cliches or platitudes. If you are pleased with how Susan satisfied a complaining customer, don’t just say, “You handled that well.” Give some detail that tells her exactly what she did right.

• Be honest. Employees know when you are faking it. Don’t offer praise unless you can do it sincerely.

• Be timely. Praise loses its impact if it’s not delivered close to the event. Don’t save it for the monthly luncheon. Tell the person what you appreciate right away. And take your time. Don’t rush away once you have delivered your message.

• Be balanced. Like anything else, praise loses its effectiveness if it’s overused. On the other hand, its power diminishes if it’s underused. Give extra attention to new employees, those who seem to lack confidence or team members testing the waters with new assignments. Focus on those making an extra effort, accomplishing a difficult task or exhibiting behavior you want others to emulate.

• Be encouraging. Praise makes people feel good, and it also reinforces behavior. Express your hope that the person will continue doing praiseworthy work. Thank the person for his or her efforts. This helps send the message that you will like to see the person’s performance keep improving.

Mackay’s Moral: Well-deserved praise improves the best of days.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail