The Power of Praise

Frequent and timely recognition for work well-done is crucial to building and maintaining high morale on a team. Best of all, it’s one of the simplest and most powerful tools you can use.

If you are a law enforcement supervisor, how often do you take the time to recognize or give praise to the day-to-day work your employees do? We’re not talking about the standout work on the kind of big cases that draw reporters sniffing for a hot story and political backslappers eager for a photo-op. What we’re asking is: How often do you recognize and praise the good, solid kind of day-to-day police work that will never draw headlines but makes up the overwhelming majority of what cops do every day to serve and protect?

Or maybe you don’t have “direct reports” under you but you have opportunity to watch and work with other cops, either side-by-side or watching from the periphery, and see a lot of good police work going on. Maybe you happen to be a detective impressed with a fellow investigators technique or the preliminary workups on cases you keep getting from certain patrol officers. Perhaps you’re a senior patrol cop and see an effectively aggressive young colleague tearing it up night after night. Do you say anything? Do you give a verbal pat on the back to your colleague, letting them know you see what they do and are impressed? Do you casually mention their good work to their boss, shoot an email up the chain-of-command to let others know or even suggest they might be worthy of additional grooming or responsibility?

The question for all of us is how well do we recognize, honor and praise everyday excellence?

As we have studied, written about and, in recent months, traveled and presented training to police supervisors in our class Police Morale for Supervisors: It IS Your Problem, we’ve learned that: a) low morale is a problem plaguing many agencies, and for many reasons, across the country; b) police supervisors are struggling for ways to improve the morale of cops in their charge, and; c) many of those supervisors spend very little time complimenting -- or sometimes even noticing -- the good work of those under them. Instead, they find themselves directing much of their energies toward prodding subordinates to be more productive or self-motivated or addressing poor performance or behavior or otherwise occupied with necessary but time-consuming administrative minutia.

Some may even sneer at the idea of their cops needing recognition or praise. “Working hard and doing their jobs are what they are paid to do, right? Why should I have to waste my time complimenting grown men and women for showing up and doing what they’re supposed to do?” And a lot of the supervisors we’ve met and corresponded with have shared a very common frustration about supervising the latest crop of Generation Y or Millennial workers. One of the traits of these young adults that has been repeatedly reported in research and media -- and amply verified by the bosses we get to talk to -- is their need for frequent feedback, direction, affirmation and attention from those in positions of authority and seniority. They expect, are used to, and like the attention of older, more experienced adults in their professional and personal settings. They grew up with it, so it’s their norm and sometimes have difficulty adapting to settings where independent self-reliance and confident decisiveness are expected of employees.

Well, maybe the Gen Y officers those bosses complain about do need to develop a wider independent streak. I bet they will, and as they grow professionally they’ll probably learn and master the critical boss-avoidance skills so many of us Gen X and Boomer coppers rely on! Right now, they may be seeking affirmation as a means of acceptance into the police fraternity, and out of desire to do the right thing, while being a little less individually prepared to self-critique and generalize information without supervision than previous generations. They’ll learn, and you’ll see they’re really a very smart group.

Maybe They’re on to Something
As it turns out, frequent and timely recognition and praise for work well-done is a crucial tool for any boss who wants to build and maintain high morale on a team. Best of all, it’s one of the simplest and most powerful tools you can use.

One of the resources we’ve come to greatly respect and have studied as part of our own research, is The Orange Revolution: How One Great Team Can Transform an Entire Organization by renowned business consultants Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. Taking the findings of a 350,000-person study conducted by the Best Companies Group, the authors have created an exceptional look at what separates the best teams and work environments from the rest. Note: This is a current book. First published in 2010, it’s based on research conducted during the massive recession of the prior two years. These are studies of companies and teams that have been thriving throughout those difficult economic times. One of their key findings was the level of excitement, engagement and high morale they found among members of these breakthrough teams. Where does it come from? One of the key factors among these teams is their emphasis on recognizing, praising and rewarding their members for good work.

Gostick and Elton show how recognition and praise for good performance are critical to increasing employee engagement, reducing attrition and improving satisfaction among stakeholders (e.g., customers, service recipients, etc). Unfortunately, work cultures that encourage or practice recognition aren’t the norm for most organizations or teams. A common refrain among workers is along the lines of, “Day in and day out, I do my job well and often go above the call of duty, without anyone saying anything about it. But when I screw up? Watch out! I’m going to hear about that 100% of the time!” This is true in both the private and public sectors, and law enforcement is certainly no exception.

Over time, when supervisors focus only on the negative and rarely or never on the positive, serious problems are likely to arise. First, employees start to feel beaten down. Enthusiasm for the job wanes, morale suffers and disengagement grows. Next and resulting directly from the first, the quality and quantity of work diminishes, disciplinary problems increase, and the supervisor’s job becomes more labor intensive as riding herd over malcontented employees takes precedence over leadership and innovation. Remember: Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior.

Deliberate, Timely & Specific
The key to successfully creating a culture where recognition is emphasized is being deliberate, timely and specific. Being deliberate means making employee recognition an integral function of your job and the workplace. As Chester Elton says, recognition and praise in the workplace has typically been seen as a “nice to have” but really needs to be a “must have.” Ideally, the expectation and responsibility for recognition goes beyond supervisors and is extended to all members of a team -- known as peer-to-peer recognition -- so that members of, say, a patrol or investigative team, are encouraged to routinely look for and report excellence in their colleagues.

Authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, in their groundbreaking 1999 book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently identify what they call the Q12 (12 Questions) that highly engaged employees can answer affirmatively, one of the questions is, “In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?” It’s not enough to let someone know you value them as an employee or to rattle off their appreciated achievements during their annual performance review. Letting them know in the moment is key.

General or ambiguous praise does little more than become just so much background noise. Instead, identify exactly what you are praising and why. The praise doesn’t need to be over-the-top or extravagant. In fact, that would probably make most cops uncomfortable. Just be sincere.

In Sum
In workplaces where rewarding and recognizing excellence is emphasized, supervisors reap benefits as employee engagement and productivity increases, while turnover and disciplinary problems decrease. And the best thing about recognition is how easily it’s implemented!

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