How to Give Praise Like a Man

by Brett on July 1, 2009 · 18 comments

in Money & Career

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Editor’s note: We previously covered how to give criticism like a man. But it’s equally to know how to render effective praise. So today Tom Cox is going to gives us a primer on how to do so.

Tom Cox is a consultant, author and speaker based in Beaverton, Oregon.  He has worked in nearly every private sector industry as well as the public sector, improving any process that involves people. His weekly radio program “Tom on Leadership” is here and his blog is here.

One of the most powerful forms of human communications is praise. We are surrounded by opportunities to use it — in teamwork, in the workplace, in family life, in volunteering, even in dog training — and when we do it well, it works wonders.

Effective praise can permanently raise someone’s performance. It can dramatically alter someone’s self-image, or even the trajectory of their life. At the very least, it can make their day better.

At the same time, wrong praise at the wrong time, in the wrong manner, can be worse than useless — it can be devastating.

Master a few basic concepts, and you can give truly effective praise every time — you can praise like a man.

Phase 1: Basic Praise

At the very least, your praise should always include these three elements:

  • The name of the person you are praising
  • The specific thing you saw them do, and where and when
  • Sincerity

Their name – you should always address a person by their name because it conveys respect. The sweetest word in most people’s ears is the sound of their own name. And, if you address me by my name, it means you know my name — it means you’ve noticed me. One of the great cravings of the human soul is to be noticed. If you start any sentence with someone’s name, you’re starting off on the right foot.

The specifics – if your praise is vague, it can sound insincere. As you start to praise more, you will frequently encounter people resisting your praise — they will say “it was nothing” or “I was just doing my job.” And maybe, deep down, they don’t think they deserve praise, or perhaps they suspect you are trying to manipulate them. If you are extremely specific, you can bypass that resistance and earn their trust.

Contrast these two statements:

“Hey, good job yesterday.”

Versus

“Hey Jim, I was really impressed with you yesterday — I noticed at three o’clock you had that huge stack of orders to handle, and when I was back at four you had finished all of them. That was some great work.”

If Jim is having a hard time accepting praise, the first statement is unlikely to be effective. The second statement, however, demonstrates to Jim three things: that you know his name, that you saw and noticed what he was up to, and that you have a positive opinion of what he did. By anchoring your praise with the specific time and place and other details, you can help Jim give himself permission to believe you.

Sincerity – you should only ever give praise that you actually mean. Unearned praise is mere flattery. A real man doesn’t manipulate people’s emotions, or use false or empty praise. Think about a  time you earned the praise of somebody you respected. You valued that praise because you valued the opinion of the person giving it. And, you valued that praise because you trusted the sincerity of the person giving it.

As you grow in manliness, you will increasingly become the kind of person whose opinion is valued by others. And your good opinion will be valued in direct proportion to how much your listener respects you, and believes you. (Never try to fake sincerity — the worst thing that might happen is, you succeed and get good at it, undermining your integrity, the foundation of true manliness.)

As I teach people how to give effective praise, this aspect of sincerity can be a real stumbling block. If it is, respect it. Become more mindful. When you are mindful enough to notice that you are struggling with sincerity, you are also mindful enough to start to develop some true sincerity. Contemplate the person whom you would like to praise. Open yourself up to noticing what it is they are doing right. Open yourself up to feeling a true sense of appreciation for what they’re doing. Once you’re in touch with that true sense of appreciation, you can voice it with sincerity.

And when you praise, you are making a statement about right and wrong. You can only give sincere praise for good work if you know what good work is. You can only praise someone for taking the right path, when you know which path is right. A real man knows right from wrong, and is not afraid to champion the right.  Effective praise is a gentle and effective way to champion the right.

Phase 2: Advanced Praise

Once you are starting to get good at normal praise, you can move on to a more advanced form. This is where effective praise can truly become life-changing.

Before you voice your positive comments, stop and ask yourself “What is the positive character trait that must exist inside that person for them to have exhibited this behavior?”

This is always the hardest thing I teach about praise, so give it some respect. In workshops, I will distribute a list of over 100 positive character traits, and give everyone time to browse through it to find one that fits the circumstance. It may be useful for you to have a thesaurus handy. A positive character trait can be anything from honesty to compassion, from hard-working to having a positive attitude, from being customer focused to being a team player.

Once you have identified the positive character trait that brought about the positive behavior that you witnessed, you add that character trait to the end of your praise:

“Hey Jim, I was really impressed with you yesterday — I noticed at three o’clock you had that huge stack of orders to handle, and when I was back at four you had finished all of them. That was some great work — you were really focused. I like being on the team with somebody who has your kind of focus.”

Several things will happen. If the person is inclined to resist, they may resist more strongly. If your details are not specific enough, they may not believe you. And if you lack sincerity, they will sense it immediately, and they will feel betrayed or manipulated. However, if you have done everything right, if you have been observant, if you are right with the details, if you are sincere, then what you are doing is providing them a glimpse of their best self through your eyes.

I truly believe that none of us will consistently behave in ways that are fundamentally at odds with our own self-image.  Everyone’s behavior will tend to normalize — to cluster around — the behavior that they expect from themselves. When you truly, and with sincerity, give someone advanced praise, you are giving them the opportunity to upgrade their self-image.

Maybe Jim never thought of himself as being particularly focused. Maybe he even thought he was weak in that area. You, however, with your own eyes saw him behave in a highly focused way. When you share that with him, and you give it the name “focus,” he almost has no choice. You’ve shown the evidence, and you’re speaking with sincerity.  At some level, he has to accept at least the possibility that he is a focused person, or that he is capable of behaving in a focused way. When he got up that morning, he didn’t think of himself that way. Now, because of your praise, he can see himself standing with a large “F” on his chest — he is Focused Man.

It is hard to overstate how transformational this can be. Under the right circumstances, the right word of praise and encouragement, spoken into the ear of someone who needs it and is ready, can unlock their human potential.

A Warning

Because praise is powerful, it is also dangerous. If you give someone praise that they truly don’t think they deserve, they can feel worse than if you’d said nothing, and they can even start to think that you are clueless. Similarly, if someone is convinced they did good job and you criticize or nitpick, that can be profoundly demoralizing.

So, be careful, and practice. A real man can handle power with responsibility. As you continue to grow in manliness, you will find effective praise comes easily to your lips and honestly from your heart.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Craig July 2, 2009 at 12:01 am

Everyone should read the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It changed my life and reminds me of this post.

2 Shaun July 2, 2009 at 12:52 am

That was a great post, Tom, I especially enjoyed the part about Advanced praise. It’s great to see someone able to nail-down in a concise manner something normally so vague.

3 Darren July 2, 2009 at 1:06 am

Great post, Tom. It really made me reflect on something I try to do often, but could definitely do better on.

4 Lizm July 2, 2009 at 1:12 am

Well said. It is difficult for many people to think well of themselves, but honest feedback about something they do seems easier for most people to relate to and accept. Good point!

5 Hitler July 2, 2009 at 1:17 am

If someone asks you a question, (if it’s a good question), tell them it’s a good question. It’s an indirect way to praise someone. I assume it makes them feel smart. It probably works best with children (who ask more good questions anyway)

6 alexander July 2, 2009 at 10:47 am

Excelent post Tom! I suddenly realize how infrequently, regardless of my sincerity and genuine nature, I have been adressing the exactness of the event to which praise is waranted and furthermore the level of proficiency that I have been praising others actions.
QUESTION:
when in areas with many people that one would know well, praise becomes a real bother. Sincerity and precision do not always go over well in large groups, it makes a person seem as if they are overly feminine or a butt-kisser. how does one combat the peanut gallery?

7 Eliot Ness July 2, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Thanks for the post! This is defiantly something to keep in mind.

8 Jason Lankow July 2, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Great post! I completely agree that the key is to be completely genuine and selfless in the process, and you truly can see someone come to life and thrive…even someone who seems to be self-assured (something I assume about good-looking people more frequently than not) may really need and grow from genuine affirmation. It’s always a tough road with someone who is on the narcissistic/egomaniac side of things as they are fundamentally insecure in many cases but the affirmation seem to inflate their ego and sense of superiority…so it’s best just to fire those people and never talk to them again (just joking).

Again – great article!

9 Beat Attitude July 3, 2009 at 10:15 am

I really like the way you put that subject across Tom. I’m a manager of around 30-40 musicians, and this kind of encouragement is always really important. Musicians always play better when they feel better about themselves. Your heart really comes out in your work.

I’m considering checking out your show (and your blog) because you really sound like you know what you’re talking about. And Brett, I think you did very well in deciding to publish this post when you did. It showed a real grasp of how to balance and vary the content of a blog, and I’m really glad to see the way Art of Manliness is helped along by that skill you have. OK, I know that sounded kinda false, but I actually mean it ;)

I should try to take some of that advice on board for the guys in my [url=http://www.thejiggers.co.uk]ceilidh bands[/url], and keep them in good spirits during the busy [url=http://ceilidhblog.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/07/wedding-season-and-the-scottish-weather.html]wedding season[/url]!

10 Beat Attitude July 3, 2009 at 10:21 am

sorry. My effusiveness made me mis-code that last post. It should read:

I should try to take some of that advice on board for the guys in my ceilidh bands and keep them in good spirits during the busy wedding season.

Oops LOL.

11 Micah July 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

I just want to point out that this is exactly what fathers should be doing with their children on a daily basis. It is all too easy for us as fathers to point out to our children when they have done something that is incorrect or disobedient, but we often fail to praise our children effectively when they are displaying the morals and character which we are trying to foster in them. A daily investment of praise into your child will do more to shape their life than harping on their mistakes.

12 AA July 7, 2009 at 12:43 am

A good rule from the old Talmud. Curse a man to his face, praise him behind his back. Words to live by.

13 Thomas Cox July 7, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Your praise sings in my ears. Thank you all for your kind words. You’ll understand if I steal some of your thoughts — I especially like the Talmud line (thanks AA). This is an area of ongoing research for me. I’ve written other blog entries on the topic, and I’m sure I will again.

If I were to write a followup posting, where would you like me to take it? Ways to get it wrong and how to avoid them? Super Advanced Praise? (Yes, there is such a thing.) Praise in specific circumstances? Stories about successful praising?

Thanks again for the opportunity to write for one of my favorite sites.
-Tom Cox

14 Susan de la Vergne July 17, 2009 at 12:43 pm

For a different perspective, read a chapter called “Praising People Does Not Motivate Them” in MANAGEMENT OF THE ABSURD by Richard Farson.

15 Shelly Blue August 20, 2009 at 8:23 am

Wow, my first ever read from AoM, & a great one it was, thanks…..& I’m a chick. In answer to your question for the follow up, I suggest both “ways to get it wrong…..” & “Stories about successful praising”.

16 Brett August 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Thanks for the suggestions, Shelly. We’ll have to look into that. Also, welcome to AoM!

17 Coila Ceilidh Band January 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Great post, that’s some good advice. I’ll try and incorporate that into my everyday life.

18 John Waldron August 18, 2013 at 2:49 pm

I always try to incorporate praise when it’s deserved. My shop has a very negative atmosphere and way too much criticism-but I try!-John

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