How to use praise and encouragement to improve employee performance

“Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” — Dale Carnegie

As I am sure many of you know, there often comes a time in a career when a person is having difficulty hitting his or her required targets. Or worse yet, he or she is put on a performance improvement plan (PIP). This is certainly not a situation anyone wants to be in. However, it does happen. After repeated warnings, coaching, and follow-up, the individual is just not performing up to the required standards.

If the person is definitely a keeper but has temporarily gone off the rails, a PIP can act as a positive vehicle to get him or her going in the right direction. When coaching this type of person, it is really critical to look for even the smallest signs of improvement toward the standards. Many of us have a tendency to be more of an auditor, focusing on what is not right. If we concentrate on the negatives, the employee can get frustrated. I’m not suggesting that you disregard the negative. What I am suggesting is that when the change in the right direction happens, you should be sure to let the individual know. There is a saying that goes, “We learn from our mistakes but grow from our successes.”

The Dale Carnegie quote at the top of this blog offers sage advice. It is interesting that when a child takes his or her first steps, the adulation from relatives is abundant. However, when an employee who has been having trouble actually starts taking those first baby steps to improvement, they either go unnoticed or are not commented upon because they are expected. If you want to help your people grow, be sure to let them know when they are succeeding, even if that success is minor.

I will never forget a defining moment in my life that occurred many years ago. At the time I worked for a restaurant group, and one of my many responsibilities was to acquire liquor licenses for new properties across the country. After trying everything in my power in St. Louis, we were only one week away from opening a new restaurant, and I was at a complete loss. When I went to tell my boss, hoping to get his help, he started asking me questions about what I had done so far. After a while, I could tell he knew that I was trying to get out of the responsibility, and here is what he did:

He reminded me that I had been successful 100% of the time in the past. He reminded me that I was really the only in-house expert in this area. He reminded me that all the steps I had taken so far were exactly the ones I should have taken. In other words, he praised me for the little steps I had taken to that point, even though the results were not yet there.



Finally, at the end of the meeting, he said he was counting on me, and I walked out with a renewed sense of confidence. Today I cannot remember what I did. I do, however, remember that I ultimately got the license and we had a successful restaurant opening.

Here is the point: My boss had every right to read me the riot act for not accomplishing what I was charged to do. Rather than do that, he reinforced my past success, reiterated that I was on the right path, let me know that it was still my responsibility, and yes, told me that he was counting on me, the expert, to get the job done.

So if you want to be a strong part of helping your team grow, even when some members aren’t quite at the level they should be, build them up with positive reinforcement. They already know they have problems. It’s your job to position them for success. A leader’s job is to build people and make them successful. Just do it!

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