Employees are all addicted to a chemical that is in short supply. When they get enough of it, their focus is sharper, their attitudes are better, and they become more motivated to carry out their manager’s requests. And best of all, it’s completely legal for managers to dole it out by the bucket-full.

The chemical is dopamine, and it is naturally triggered by the brain when our efforts are praised. Dopamine causes feelings of pride and happiness, but its effects wear off quickly making it highly addictive. When people go for even short periods of time without it, they become listless, more easily distracted and have less energy.

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, applying this little nugget of neuroscience is the closest thing there is to a managerial panacea. Think about it. Managers in every industry, in every country, and in every capacity (including parents) all cry out the same lament at one time or another: “Why don’t they just do what I ask them to do?!

Now imagine if I offered you a perfectly legal drug, which costs virtually nothing, that when administered predisposes employees to carry out your requests. Even better yet, it promises to endear you to them. Companies would be sugar-coating the stuff and be filling the candy dish at reception with it!

As absurdly simple as it sounds, these effects very closely mirror what happens when managers recognize employee’s good work.

Behaviour That Gets Praised Gets Repeated

If you have ever thought “Why should I praise someone for simply doing their job?” consider this: behaviour that gets praised gets repeated. If someone does something well, let them know that they hit the mark so that they will know what to aim for next time.

Praise is one of the most effective performance management tools managers have at their disposal because it is clarifies good performance better than any goal statement or metric ever could. People don’t just understand what good performance looks like conceptually, they have experienced it. And they know what it takes to achieve it next time.

There Are No Adverse Side Effects

If you are worried about providing too much praise, don’t be. Research has shown that people rarely get enough of it. Contrary to what you may think, it’s almost impossible to overdose on praise as long as it is sincere.

When the Gallup organization went in search of the most impactful things managers can do to improve employee performance, they found that recognizing good performance pays dividends. Teams that regularly receive praise are 10% – 20% more productive and profitable. But there’s a catch. They found that each team member must be praised individually at least once every seven days for maximum payoff. That may seem like a lot, but what’s the downside? The time and effort it takes to thank an employee for a specific contribution they made has about the highest yield of any investment I’ve ever heard of.

The Trigger

People who are not in the habit of praising others need a trigger, a flashing red light, so to speak, to help them identify prime opportunities to apply this neurological nugget. The next time someone does something that slightly pleasantly surprises you, that’s your opportunity. Jump on it by saying “Thanks very much for _____. I really appreciate it.”

Try This Experiment

The next time an employee, your child, or even your spouse does something that even slightly pleasantly surprises you, thank them for it and see what happens. Odds are they’ll do it again sometime soon. You’ll get more of the behaviour you want from them, and they’ll get the recognition they crave from you!

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2 Comments

  1. MacKinlay on March 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    I agree with this and like the idea of it, however my concern would be that once you do it is it not expected by the employee or person thereafter? In my expirence once you do this once, and for whatever reason you do not do this sometime in the future the individual can almost resent not receiving this. I’m not saying what you are saying is wrong, but I would like to know how to avoid the expirence I had while still getting the affect you described?
    Thanks in advance for your invaluable information.

    • Michael on March 5, 2015 at 8:31 pm

      I think you need to look at this as a choice between the lesser of two evils, so to speak. Is it better to never praise good work, or praise it when you remember to or notice it and risk the person being offended if you don’t praise every good thing they do? Without a doubt, it will be better for the relationship, and have a more positive impact on the person’s performance, if you do the latter.

      Another way to think about this is from the standpoint of the person in question. Would you prefer your spouse or your boss to never praise your good work as a husband or employee, or to receive recognition from them occasionally. Most rational people don’t expect to be praised for everything. And those who receive praise regularly from their spouse or boss will be less inclined to take offence if it’s missed.

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