The Psychology of Praise

Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing, resilience and thriving. Insights from positive psychology help us understand a bit deeper how important praise is, so let's look at five ways we can cultivate cultures of positivity through some purposeful acts.

Leaders who are graceful, grateful and appreciative seem to have teams who are emboldened, creative and productive. Indeed, across the years, we're often told that praising people at work is an easy win for motivation.

Insights from positive psychology help us understand a bit deeper how important praise is, and how we can cultivate cultures of positivity through some purposeful acts.

So what is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing, resilience and thriving. It explores questions like:

  • Why are some people happy despite living what might be a difficult life?
  • How do some people thrive under conditions in which others fall apart?
  • How do we focus on a person's strengths as opposed to fixing weaknesses?
  • How can we develop and cultivate feelings of positivity and happiness?

Good questions, don't you think?

When I talk about the topic and deliver workshops on it, people are often struck by just how much we don't think about these questions.

For most people, we just get on by. We do what we have to do in order to do what we have to do.

Positive psychology starts to help us to understand that if we understand how to live a positive life, we don't need to just get by, we can positively enjoy life. Sounds intriguing and almost too good to be true doesn't it?

One of the elements of this field of thought is the importance of appreciation and praise at work. The research into this area has taught us that there's a ratio which helps provide some context about what this looks like and provides a way for us to understand how well we're doing.

The ratio is that we need to have approximately three positive experiences for every one negative experience.

Let's explore that a bit more. This is about genuine appreciation and praise for a range of things that happen at work. Things like:

Praising the efforts for getting a job done

It's not just children who need praise, as adults we do too and of course that praise looks and feels different.

Most of us are at work and get paid for the job we're doing. What can help us feel good about that work is when we get praise and recognition for how we're doing the job, as well as what we achieve.

If I get told I'm approaching things in the right way, that I'm using a set of tools in useful ways, that I've arranged for work to happen in certain ways, it helps me to know I'm doing a good job.

We start to move from a position of performance management to a position of performance motivation, just by recognising and praising how people are getting on.

Giving peers the opportunity to praise each other

This isn't directly about feedback, it's about a space/environment where people feel they can praise one another for a job well done, for support, for listening, for achieving things, for a range of things.

What that starts to do is cultivate an environment where people are actively seeking ways to praise their team members, because it's a good thing to do.

I've seen teams do this by having a whiteboard dedicated to nothing but praise for each other and it has quite an impact on the team.

Challenge and criticism are important

It's important to understand that the ratio helps provide an indication that negative feedback is healthy for a team. Not everything can be rosy and perky, sometimes it's important to address issues that arise, and deal with them well.

If a team understands that when issues arise, they can learn from their mistakes, they're not chastised for them, and they have support from managers, it makes it okay to make mistakes, and you can focus on building in practices that make a difference as opposed to policing behaviour.

Celebrate achievements as a collective

We all have achievements at work, but we don't always celebrate them. That's partly because of the British reserve about such things, and is also partly about humility.

When we achieve things, and we celebrate them with others, it really bolsters great feelings of positivity. We feel more connected to our team members and want to find ways to support each other on a more regular and active basis.

Use actively inclusive language

People at work want to feel like they belong. When you write messages or updates, try to carefully consider how things are worded.

Try to avoid comparisons. Keep sentences clear and try to avoid language that can be seen as divisive or exclusive.

There are plenty of ways to phrase things so that people understand a clear message is being delivered, without feeling that they are either being singled out or that they're being excluded. Inclusion rocks.

The simple act of praise isn't just about motivating people, it serves many more purposes we may have not understood previously. What we’re now beginning to understand much more better is that praising people for their efforts as well as for their achievements are great ways to build a strong team and act as a strong leader.

There are many more insights from positive psychology that we can take and use to build better teams, positive cultures and improve management and leadership capabilities.

What do you think about the above? Is it useful to you? What does it get you thinking about?

Sukh Pabial is a learning and organisational development leader. He is a guest writer for the Creative Huddle blog and runs his own consultancy, Challenging Frontiers.

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