Leadership Myth #4: Acknowledging and praising co-workers is not a priority
There is a very popular expression in the French language: "Il n'y a rien à dire" which, when literally translated into English ("there is nothing to say") loses its meaning altogether. "Il n'y a rien à dire" is used in everyday language to recognize that something is, indeed, perfect. However, there doesn't seem to be an English equivalent, where you compliment someone with a negative. Having asked a handful of French friends, it indeed insinuates that the person saying it has searched (quite possibly unconsciously) for errors in vain and so resorts to the fact that because there aren't any, "il n'y a rien à dire" – "there is nothing to say".
What if we were to delve a little deeper into its implication on a cultural level and more specifically on its impact on morale at work. "Il n'y a rien à dire" implies that if there would be anything worth mentioning, it would be to point out that there is something wrong. From here, we could safely conclude that there's a slim chance that an accomplishment is acknowledged, let alone celebrated, in the French language.
Now let's stretch our reflection beyond the linguistic borders (after all, I was inspired to crack open Leadership Myth n°4 with this French expression following an exchange I had the other day driving in my car with my husband, from whom I was seeking an approval – for which he replied: "Il n'y a rien à dire"). Because after all, wouldn't we be kidding ourselves if we were to say that we're irreproachable when it comes to acknowledging our committed co-workers and praising them when expectations are met let alone surpassed, regardless whether we express ourselves in French or not? What if we were to eat humble pie and list the tasks accomplished and decisions made by the team, say, in the past three months, which have simply become the norm and been taken for granted? Aren't we guilty for the lack of feedback we provide to our co-workers who keep the team alive and viable, accomplishing routine as well as not-so-routine tasks and making decisions skillfully and coherently? Is there still "nothing to say" - "rien à dire"?
Yet there are endless – and valid! - reasons why we are not proactive in praising others at work, from running the risk of making the praised feel embarrassed ("It was nothing special") to becoming risk averse. There is also the danger of praising low performance ("Is this all they expect from me?") or overpraising thus potentially making the praised person patronized or insulted. There is even a book called Punished by Rewards (Kohn, 1993)...
So what now? Forget praise altogether? Praise done ineffectively can indeed have harmful consequences, and detract co-workers from cultivating a mindset in which they are eager and open to learning and growing. But isn't that the very thing we're aiming for, as the new generation of coach-leaders?
There is a term called "indirect complimenting" where the leader praises the other with a question, thus activating their thinking. For instance, the indirect compliment: "Wow. How did you manage to finish that task so quickly?" allows them to become more aware of what worked for them for improved performance. Another way of going about complimenting effectively would be to follow the ABC of compliments:
A for Accurate: The compliment has to accurately refer to what the person has accomplished.
B for Believable: The compliment should be realistic, not exaggerated.
C for Constructive: The compliment should focus on what is important and useful to the person for making progress.
Because it is those whose efforts are recognized who are willing to stretch themselves and be stretched. After all, don't we all continuously seek to be valued, accepted and respected? The power of acknowledgment is generally underestimated and yet it is key to developing and retaining talent and maintaining an effective and engaged team.
So now look up and around you: Which co-worker do you think could do with an indirect compliment from you today? Because if "Il n'y a rien à dire", then you've probably got a team who isn't giving its all.