Leadership Lessons #3 – Powerful Praise

This edition is a message to the YES Prep staff from Dustin Peterson, Director of Leadership Development. 
I had an interesting experience on the way home from Dallas last week where we spent Thanksgiving that has major implications for our work here at YES Prep.  My 6-year old son was sitting in the backseat with our three other kids and was behaving patiently.  Read those last four words again.  That alone was a miracle.  Typically, he says the same things over and over such as “when can we watch a movie” or “I’m hungry” or “I need to go to the bathroom” or “are we in Houston yet,” five minutes after we’ve left.  But on this trip, we set the expectation at the outset that the first two hours of the drive would be in silence to allow our younger kids to sleep.  He obeyed, and this is when the interesting thing happened.  I turned around after two hours and said, “Bennett! Wow! You have been so patient. Great job, buddy! (Pat on head) Let’s eat a snack and watch a movie.”  He beamed.  We turned on a movie and enjoyed the rest of the drive.  He was less irritating than normal for the remainder of the trip and that night as I tucked him in, he proudly said “I was really good in the car, wasn’t I?”  It’s all he could think about.  I confirmed his statement and re-affirmed his awesomeness.   As I walked out I wondered why he was so stuck on that moment and then something I read from Ken Blanchard, famed leadership guru, came to mind:
“People who feel good about themselves produce good results.”
In Blanchard’s management methodology, the way to motivate good work — whether on my car-drive home or at YES Prep — from our students or team members is to set clear expectations (we’re driving in silence for two hours) and then praise good performance (You have been so patient.  Good job, buddy!).  When people know what a good job looks like they are significantly more likely to repeat the behavior in order to get the praise.
Problem is, 1)  We don’t set clear expectations to begin with or we assume our students or team members know how to be successful  2) we often wait until we see perfect behavior before praising and/or 3) we observe great performance but never articulate it. We might share it with a colleague or fellow teacher – “hey, did you see what Sam did? He’s great…” – but not with the person who needs to hear it most.
Remember, “The journey to exactly right is made of a whole series of approximately rights.” Don’t wait until mid-year meetings, team meetings, weekly check-ins, or newsletter shout-outs to praise good performance.
Here are five steps to becoming a mind-blowing praiser:

  1. Praise immediately.  No need to plan it out, just go for it!  It’s not like critical feedback – no one will be offended if you just blurt out praise for them.
  2. Be specific.  They may appreciate a ‘Good job lately, Sara!’ but it won’t have the same impact as knowing exactly what they did well.
  3. Pause to let the person feel how you feel about their awesomeness.
  4. Memorialize the moment with a high-give, fist-bump, handshake, shoulder pat, or other physical gesture.
  5. Encourage them to do more of the same.

The rule I strive to live by is to articulate the praise the second it comes to mind, whether via email, in person, or through a text or phone call.  Don’t let it die in my mind.  I read an interesting fact recently from a poll by the John Templeton Foundation.  The survey questioned 2,000 people on gratitude and found that most people think their gratitude is increasing while everyone else’s is going down.  The truth, revealed from the survey, is quite the opposite.  Only 15% of people express daily gratitude to friends or colleagues and 74% rarely or never expresses gratitude to bosses.  The same likely goes for praising.  And couldn’t we all use a little more praise?

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