Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Praise has practical benefits in the newsroom

What could be worse than to make extra effort in your work and feel that no one noticed?

The message would be clear: it doesn't really matter to anyone whether I do a good job or not.  No newsroom boss should let that happen. Judicious praise can change that.  
Many editors in particular skimp on praise for their journalists. They think the pay and the work itself  should be reward enough. Or they think that the egos of their reporters would become even more of a problem when fed by praise.

I shared this point of view for many years. I also found it hard to praise work when it was only 80 or 90 percent of what I wanted. Reluctance to praise was a big mistake. 

The benefits of praise

  • It can help you reinforce the values and the standards of your news organization.
  • It helps you teach what you mean by quality. 
  • It can help people recognize their own strengths and develop them.
  • It makes people more open to receiving criticism when that moment comes.
  • It motivates people. Your best people appreciate sincere, specific praise and will go over and above to get more.   
Talented people often cannot recognize what they are good at. Writing well or getting a big advertising contract is as natural to them as breathing. A publisher who points out specific things a talented employee does well can help them become even better.

In my experience, your people will develop much faster by focusing on their talents than by trying to improve their weaknesses. This is not to absolve people of responsibility for eliminating errors. It is just to say that the payback is greater when they work in areas of talent.

How to do it

(Much of this how-to comes from The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson.)

  1. When one of your people does something well, give recognition immediately. Only give well earned praise at that moment. Note the progress.
  2. It is better to do it in private to create an air of significance. Tell the person, "I want to compliment you on something."
  3. Saying "good work" is not enough. Your best people discount unspecific praise. The person must know exactly what the qualities are that you appreciate. Tell the person what is good about the work and how much it helps the organization. 
  4. If the work is not perfect (and it never is), hold off on saying, "but" or "however" at this point. You can touch on those things in another conversation.
  5. Pause and let the person enjoy the moment.
  6. Shake his or her hand. Encourage the person to do more.

Levels of praise

At the lowest are some spoken words. Some written words by email might be better. A handwritten note is much more powerful, and finally public recognition or a prize is the highest. 

When I was publisher of a business newspaper with 30 employees, I made it a practice to compose at least five handwritten notes of praise a week. Typically it was hard to get started because I was more focused on our mistakes and problems than on what we had done well. 

But after reflecting and writing one or two notes, I started to recall lots of successes that resulted from extra effort, creativity or fine craftsmanship. Often I would write more than five notes. I did this weekly for six years. 

The notes were on on a special canary-colored paper with "Splendid" on the top. Employees hung them up in their cubicles. They were a badge of honor. The employees of our newspaper knew that what they did made a difference and that they were appreciated. For many people that is at least as important as money. 

Related: How to give criticism effectively, in 6 steps. 

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