Give compliments to show your true appreciation.
It's easy to offer and completely free. And it's one of the most significant steps you can take to motivate your co-workers and clients. It's praise—something so simple and yet so often mucked up.
Good compliments take timing, sincerity, the right frequency, and an awareness about the person you want to recognize. We've all heard the old adage: praise in public, correct in private. And while this is sometimes true, it's important to realize all of your team members are individuals, and they may prefer to be recognized in different ways—even privately. To get to the heart of giving great praise, you'll need to dig deeper into the people you work with—and for—and discover the type of recognition that speaks to them.
Some managers may feel the biggest compliment they can offer employees is a regular paycheck—and that little else is needed to keep employees motivated. But Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and owner of Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich., cautions that you get what you pay for—and true recognition goes beyond monetary rewards. Praise for high-quality work may help create an environment that breeds excellent employees who are more capable of doing a great job and feeling good about their work.
"Studies show that engaged employees increase practice productivity," says Marianne Mallonee, the hospital administrator and one of the owners of Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital in Wheat Ridge, Colo. "You also increase retention. You save money because you're not losing people and having to rehire and retrain."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the No. 1 reason people leave a job is because they don't feel appreciated. Let's examine what a compliment is—and isn't—and discuss ways to improve your praise-giving abilities, regardless of your role in the practice.
To start with, it's important to speak your praise. "Sometimes we think our praise but we don't actually speak it," Gair says.
Speak aloud, says Mallonee. "It's easy, and it can make such a positive impact," she says. "We spend so much time trying to come up with ways to engage our employees, and a simple thank you can be the answer."
Before you praise another person, it's worthwhile to consider your motivation. Our experts agree your goal should be to recognize and thank someone. If you're praising for any other reason, whether it's to motivate others to copy a star employee's behavior or to shame clients into offering their pets better care, it's probably best to zip your lip. When it's true, sincere praise can be a motivator. Insincere praise can be just the opposite—and people can usually tell the difference.
Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT, the owner of Halow Consulting in New York City and Wyalusing, Pa., says people have radars that sense phony compliments meant to motivate, no matter how artfully you phrase your words. That's why he insists sincerity is critical.
"Somebody told me the way to teach my African grey parrot to talk was to talk to my other bird and praise the bird in front of it," Halow says. "That worked for the bird, but people often see through that ruse."
Tone and body language play a huge role in how others perceive our words. Gair says your voice should sound pleasant and happy. "And avoid the qualifiers," she says. "For example, when you say, 'You did a really good job, but ... ' then the person who's receiving the praise hears how to improve, not the compliment."
And if you sense your words come from a place of anger, hold your tongue, Halow says. A backhanded compliment can feel much worse to the person you're trying to thank than failing to say anything at all.
"I know a manager who sometimes just drips contempt. And she doesn't even realize she's doing it," Halow says. "She says things all the time that are just loaded. And she'd be better off to say nothing at all, because her comments have such a negative impact."
Once you've mastered a warm tone, you'll need to consider what your body language says about your message. To project positive body language, Gair suggests you step back from the business you're attending, square your shoulders to the person you're talking to, and make eye contact.
"It's easy to think we've offered sincere praise," Gair says. "But too often we say thanks with one foot out the door, then turn around and bark an order at someone else. And it doesn't feel sincere."
Can you thank people too much—or too little? Certainly there's a sweet spot, Mallonee says. "While the surprise factor can make a compliment feel that much better, it's important not to withhold your praise, so on that one special occasion you praise it means more," she says. "And if you give compliments ad nauseam, it also lessens the impact of your words."
In fact, Mallonee says she avoids a formulaic approach to compliments. Instead, she recommends learning the culture of your practice. "It's important to know the employees individually," she says. "Because some employees need to hear praise in public immediately, while others appreciate a text message or e-mail."
The key is knowing what works best for the people you work with. And sometimes, Mallonee says, you're better off if you avoid overthinking it. "You can get yourself into more trouble with a compliment when you try to make it a big deal," she says. "Many times the best approach is a really simple, 'Wow, you really worked hard today. We accomplished a lot. Thank you.'"
Praise is not just for good days. In fact, it's on the bad days that your kind words may mean the most. Compliments can be morale boosters, and so it's important to remember to thank team members for their efforts even when bad things happen.
You've all been there the day the hit-by-car dog doesn't make it. His family is sobbing in the waiting room, and perhaps team members have even paused to shed a tear or two themselves.
When your team hurts, it's hard to think in positives. But a genuine thank you for everyone's efforts can be meaningful at these times, Gair says.
For example, you might say, "Thank you for working so hard. And although the outcome is not what we wished, I am truly grateful for how well our team members worked together."
Praise isn't the strict responsibility of bosses and managers only. Team members who find ways to appreciate their co-workers and their clients will often enjoy a more positive outlook and find more joy in their jobs. Gair recommends using client service meetings to encourage team members to praise each other. When team members acknowledge each other's efforts, everyone learns new ways to excel.
"I tend to begin staff meetings with a great customer service story," Halow says. "I try to think about who I'm going to call on in the room who I've seen have a great customer service story to share this week. And I get them to retell whatever I saw them play out with clients."
Halow says he coaches team members through the story, querying them in front of the crowd with questions like, "Were you nervous?" and "When the client seemed like she wasn't going to take any of your services, what made you decide to keep trying to educate her?"
"I really try to encourage them to shine as best they can in front of their peers. And I've found that works for both introverted and extroverted people, almost all personality types," he says. "It also allows the rest of the crowd to hear my service message through the mouth of someone else. And I've found that's the most effective way to educate my team members about how to deliver on service."
Like your co-workers, clients appreciate genuine praise, even when you're recognizing something as simple as a new haircut or weight loss—theirs or their pet's. The key, Gair says, is being specific.
"If you're genuinely complimenting people, I think it opens people's eyes to you," Gair says. "It makes them listen and connect with you better. They'll be more open to being educated by you and taking your advice and recommendations. And they're more likely to tell their friends and neighbors, 'My veterinary team really cares,' because they feel like you do." ?
Mallonee says that sincere praise can also be an effective way to encourage the care you want clients to continue to offer. "For example, you can make a big deal about a client who visits for a wellness exam. You can thank them for agreeing to do blood work," she says. "It's also important to thank clients for using us as a resource. There are a lot of studies showing people turning to the Internet. Any time clients call us with a question, we need to thank them for taking the time to get the answer from us."
And remember, the best praise comes back to how you make your clients feel. "There's a quote by Maya Angelou that says, 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,'" Mallonee says. "Clients may not remember the exact recommendations you made, and they may not remember everything the doctor said during the physical exam. But if you say, 'Thank you, you're doing a great job with your four-legged kiddo,' clients are going to remember how they felt when you said that. That's powerful."
As you seek to appreciate your co-workers and clients in new ways every day, Gair encourages you to practice random acts of kindness, whether it's grabbing an umbrella to walk clients out to the car or helping clients with four kids, a dog, and a cat when they come in for an appointment. Look for ways to go above and beyond to show true appreciation.
"You can't fool people," Halow says. "You've got to reach down inside yourself and find what it is about that person that you approve of, then offer sincere appreciation. I just think that's the sort of thing that swells hearts."
Portia Stewart is a freelance writer in Lenexa, Kan.