There’s a tool sitting on our leadership work bench that often goes neglected. Yet it has the power to increase our team’s efforts, raise their spirits, and improve performance. As a bonus, it takes very little time, is easy to use, costs almost nothing, and comes in unlimited supply. What is it, you may ask? It’s praise, and today we’ll talk about five ways you can give praise that motivates, inspires, and possibly even changes lives.
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I still have the note from my commander.
It was from October of 1987. I was pulling a tour as Staff Duty Officer at an Army unit up near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The Staff Duty Officer is a junior leader who is designated to keep watch over the battalion after hours, while most everyone else sleeps. That night, it was my turn.
As duty officer, we carried a radio and side-arm, and spent the night answering the phone should it ring, resolving any issues that arose, and making inspection rounds of the installation to ensure gates are locked and guards are alert. We even had a specific set of conditions under which we should wake the battalion commander – a lieutenant colonel, someone several levels above my pay grade.
As a way of developing us junior officers, the colonel had an additional task for the duty officer to perform. During our shift, we were to read a short article from a professional journal, and then write a few paragraphs about what was said and how that impacts our personal approach to leadership.
Thankfully, my tour of duty that chilly October night on the DMZ was uneventful. When my responsibilities ended at 0800 hrs the next day, I returned the radio and the side arm, turned in my little writing assignment, and went back to work.
A day or so later, after our morning fitness routine, my immediate boss, a captain, handed me a piece of paper. It was my writing assignment from that tour as Staff Duty Officer. There was a yellow “buck slip” stapled to it, with a personal note in the battalion commander’s hand writing.
Thirty-four years later, I still have that note. It was about that paper I had written.
A Note from the Big Boss
The text was short and to the point. It probably took him two minutes to write and send along. But there were five things about that note that compelled me to hang on to it, even after all this time. And it’s these same five qualities that can make a little praise such an impactful tool for us as leaders.
1. He acknowledged the work. By virtue of getting a note back soon after I had completed the job, he provided simple recognition of my efforts. I know I had done the best I could, and there is a certain satisfaction in that. But when the boss, especially one several layers above me in the food chain, recognizes the effort, it has a validating effect. I felt my time was purposeful and not wasted.
2. He complimented the work that I had done. Beyond simple acknowledgement were words of support and encouragement. He was impressed with the quality of the effort. He didn’t have to say anything, but he took the time to let me know. That made me feel good.
3. He was specific about what was good. It wasn’t just “thanks” or “good job.” He added a few words about what specifically was useful or worthy of note. Knowing exactly what he found to be good in the work helped me understand what he valued, and what I could do to continue on that path. Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective leadership tools there is.
4. He wrote it down. A verbal pat on the back is never bad, but there’s something more concrete and meaningful about putting pen to paper. It communicates a little more effort and sincerity on the part of the praiser, and that gives it greater value. If the colonel had just happened to see me in the mess hall the next day and said, “Good job” it would have been nice, but also soon forgotten.
5. He went through my boss. The way he routed his note back to me required that my boss see it first. This doubled the impact because my own direct leader could see and acknowledge what the colonel saw as important and worthy of mention. In one simple step he reinforced the culture he was trying to cultivate, and the chain of command at the same time. He didn’t just tell me what he liked, he made sure my own boss was aware, too. And I got two “atta-boys” out of it, not just one!
In Praise of Praise – The Takeaway
Now, long past retirement, I am slowly wading through boxes of old papers from my career, tossing out most of what I find. Old relocation orders, evaluation reports, even written school-house assignments – they all spark memories, but much of it has lost meaning or relevance. Time for it to go; I need the space for other things.
But that small, yellow slip of paper from 34 years ago – I just can’t quite make myself throw it away.
When a respected leader promptly acknowledges work done, praises the effort, is specific about what is good, hand-writes it in ink, and shares it with others, that kind of praise can have a powerful and lasting effect on the recipient.
I had done my best to do as my commander had asked. And he had complimented me on my efforts in a way that was positive and motivating. In fact, come to think of it, all these years later, I am still writing about leadership.
Who knows the life-long impact you may have on your teammates; all with just a little well-placed praise.