"Nice job." "Good work." No more than two syllables, they're just about the easiest possible ways to praise people. That's why we tend to keep hearing those phrases tossed around the office, despite endless advice and admonitions (themselves bordering on cliché) that there are right ways and wrong ways to give positive feedback and even that praise itself is addictive.
But constructively acknowledging a job well done doesn't have to be a laborious process. In fact, we can simply swap the usual commendations with a straightforward question—one that can move the conversation forward in ways a desultory "nice job" can't. After all, the point of praise isn't to give your employees a quick ego boost—it's to help them perform at their best. And if all your team members hear is "hey, great work," they'll be left to guess at why you think it's great.
Here are three questions to ask instead the next time you notice a job well done.
In his book The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey recounts his experience teaching the sport to beginners. One thing he noticed that surprised him was that whenever he told his student "Great!" or "Nice shot!" it actually put more pressure on the student, and they'd wind up making more mistakes.
The reason is because saying "Great!" doesn't tell the person what they did or why it worked. Yet, when we criticize someone, we get very specific about what they're doing wrong. Why not take the same approach with giving praise?
When Gallwey began telling his students what they were doing right and why it was working, the difference was unmistakable. Students who'd never hit a tennis ball in their lives were improving at a faster rate than ever before. So when you give praise, you can start off with "Nice job," but then follow it up with a specific question about their motivation or thought process. For example:
I love how clearly you communicated with the team in your emails, and that you got so-and-so involved to take care of X. It shows your leadership skills and how you were able to bring people together. What inspired you to approach it that way?
This allows you to gain insight into the thinking that went into the behavior so you can encourage more of it—and not just "be encouraging," broadly speaking. What's more, by highlighting that clear communication shows this person is demonstrating leadership skills, they'll associate that feedback with the behavior and feel motivated to continue doing it.
I was recently talking with a client who used to feel overwhelmed and burned out but was now seeing her productivity go through the roof. After pointing out a few things I noticed she was doing that were working well, I asked her, "How is this different than what you were doing before?"
Usually, we think that once we've given praise, our job is done. But in order to deepen the meaning of the praise and help your employee internalize the lesson, ask them about the change that brought it about the new outcome.
Posing that simple question to my client helped her understand that confronting certain circumstances differently could lead to real changes in her productivity. Now she could see which circumstances those were and what changes she made to them that mattered.
Getting the other person to explain the thinking behind what are sometimes unconscious actions. That way, if they find themselves in a similar situation in the future where they're stuck, they can refer back to this moment and recall exactly what they did.
Sure, easy to think about the annoying quirks people have and what we want them to do less of, but when it comes to giving praise, it's important to think about what we want people to do more of.
Similar to how many strength-based approaches to leadership zero in on what we do best, the way to make your positive feedback have an impact is to ask, "What can you do so you can do more of this?"
The question is designed to get the other person thinking not just about what worked and why but also how they can turn that into a regular process that happens more often. That potentially benefits them as well as everyone else who works with them. It can even deepen your managerial relationship because now you're furthering their personal and professional development—all just by going a step beyond "nice job!"
Giving praise properly isn't about embodying a management cliché or trying to motivate your team with empty pep talks. It's about paying attention and noticing what the people around you truly do well, and helping them do more of it so you can create a thriving team. And it all starts with three simple questions.
Felicia Spahr is a sought-out leadership coach who helps ambitious, professional women perform at their best and become better leaders.