When it comes to motivating team members, have you ever praised them for their good work by saying things like, “great job!” or “well done” or “thank you for that amazing effort – we couldn’t have done it without you!”?

I know I have, including just last week.

But while praising people is better than yelling at them, it’s not the most effective tool in your leadership toolkit to motivate them beyond the very short term. And it might even backfire on you as a leader (more on this in a moment).

The better option is to use affirmation.

I learned this recently from my husband, who’s the head coach of a professional women’s basketball team. At an event for basketball coaches, he heard a speaker talk about the difference between praise and affirmation in motivating professional athletes.

I think the same applies to us “corporate athletes” which is why I’m sharing it with you.

The problem with praise as a motivator

Praise is an expression of admiration or approval for something that someone has done. In essence, you’ve judged the person and found them worthy. And coming from you as their leader, it amplifies the power distance between you.

No matter how heartfelt it is, praise can feel like the equivalent of patting your dog on the head and saying, “good dog!”.  And the effect wears off pretty quickly, with each of you going back to your respective workspaces and life carries on pretty much as it was.

Because praise is often vague and general, it makes it difficult for people to understand what they did right. That can lead to frustration because they’re not sure how to do it again.

Relying on praise can create a culture of dependency where people need external validation to feel good about themselves. It can even create a culture of competition if people start keeping score to see who’s in favor with the boss.

And praise can backfire on you if it’s misinterpreted or taken the wrong way. For example, to a team member who has gone the extra mile to create an innovative solution, a generic “fantastic job!” can sound insincere and leave them feeling you didn’t understand their contribution.

Why motivating through affirmation is powerful

On the other hand, affirmations are powerful statements that encourage individuals to believe in their abilities, strengths, and worth.

For example, “your strategic approach to analyzing the problem and ability to bring people together to find a solution was instrumental to our winning the business.”

Affirmations say, “I see you” in a way that general praise never will. They’re more motivating and effective than praise because affirmations are personalized and specific and make it clear what the person has done to deserve the praise.

The thing about affirmation is it’s not about you, it’s about the person you’re motivating.

That’s why it doesn’t include the word “I” and it does emphasize the specific skills and capabilities that your team member has displayed and the impact it’s had.

The key is to learn how to use affirmation in addition to praise

Here are a few examples. As you read through them, think about how they would land if you were on the receiving end. And consider when affirmation would be most effective versus when a quick word of praise will do.

Praise: “Great job on the presentation.”
Affirmation: “You have the skills and abilities to effectively communicate your ideas in any situation.

Praise: “I appreciate the hard work you put into the project, it really paid off.”
Affirmation: “You’ve shown you can complete any project with dedication and excellence.”

Praise: “I'm impressed by the amount of effort you put into this project, keep it up.”
Affirmation: “Your hard work and dedication is an inspiration to those around you.”

For most of us, it takes more work to come up with a specific affirmation while words of praise come naturally.

But don’t default to praise as your primary motivational tool just because it comes more easily. Instead, be aware of the impact you want to have on what you’re trying to achieve with your team members and consciously choose the approach that will serve that purpose.

To be the great leader you want to be, it’s worth developing your affirmation vocabulary

It takes practice and perseverance to shift your motivational focus from praise to affirmation. But it’s worth it.

Not only will you build the self-esteem and confidence of each member of your team, you’ll do it in a way that promotes collaboration and teamwork.

That’s because affirmation encourages people to focus on their own strengths and accomplishments, not how many times they get praised relative to their peers. Plus, it will give your team members a chance to understand how each person on the team can add value, which makes for a stronger team.

Most of all, the motivation from feeling affirmed is long lasting.

What do you often say to praise people, and how could you turn that into an affirmation?

Leave a comment and let me know.