The majority of people are receptive to praise. We are socially predisposed, have a strong need to belong and through praise we receive precisely this social esteem.

Psychologist Daniela Renger from the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel defines social esteem, which is shared through praise, as one of three forms of recognition. The other two are respect and affection. “Praise increases self-esteem, i.e. the perception that one is competent, capable and valuable.” Daniela Renger, together with two colleagues from Basel and Louvain-la-Neuve, also showed that social recognition can protect against burnout. Two studies with several hundred employees were able to prove this: The higher the recognition by superiors and colleagues, the lower the risk of burnout. Furthermore, respect and appreciation could reduce emotional exhaustion and increase work performance. In another study, the researchers followed people in their daily lives as well as at work and found that the respect they experienced increased their sense of autonomy. With autonomy, life and job satisfaction increased noticeably.

Now, probably all of us have experienced that not all praise is good, feels appreciative or conveys respect. In fact, there are many things one can do wrong when praising. Why is that?

All praise is accompanied by evaluation. Those who express praise attribute to themselves the competence and authority to be able to judge someone else. Since, typically, no permission is sought in advance, it is quickly clear that the one praising is at least on a par with, if not above, the one being praised in the hierarchy.

Praise can be formulated subjectively (“I think you are nice.”) as well as objectively (“You are a nice person”). It can also refer to different things. Praise can be given for a result (“The report is very good.”), an activity (“You write very well.”), a character trait (“Your diligence is commendable.”) or things (“You have beautiful eyes.”). An activity can be influenced by the praised person and he or she bears the responsibility for it, which does not apply to the beautiful eyes. For praise to be effective at all, it needs the right form, dose, the situation as well as the relationship of the people involved. The following tips can help ensure that praise actually motivates and is good for both the recipient and the giver:

In principle, praise should always be honest and authentic. Do not strategically praise a colleague for something you did not actually find worth mentioning or suspect that the person feels unhappy about it him or herself.

Do not exaggerate or give unwarranted praise. Even children who have a well-developed “Theory of Mind” (from the age of 6 or 7) are more likely to feel sad or not taken seriously after false praise. Exaggerated formulations (“that was just perfect”) can furthermore build up pressure. Those who are less self-confident may be discouraged.

Good praise focuses on the action more than the result. “It’s great how committed you were to preparing the presentation.” is usually more encouraging than “Great presentation,” because it acknowledges the effort and motivates the person to keep trying.

Above all, praise should be given for what the praised person can control. Only then can the praised person take personal credit for it. Praise for character traits which are difficult to control can make a person assume that his or her level of performance is unchangeable, which can dampen ambition.

Show interest. “Did you cook the meal yourself? Was it complicated? Would you give me the recipe?” By doing this, you pay true appreciation to the other person without directly praising in a judgmental way.

When praising, do not compare. The focus is always on the praiseworthy performance, regardless of whether it compares favourably or unfavourably with others. A “You were the best” stirs up the fear that one could certainly not perform as outstandingly again, which is why the renewed effort will probably not be worthwhile.

Have a certain standard for what is to be praised. If you are praised for something that actually seems trivial, you are more likely to believe that you are not capable of doing it. Praise should also be well measured so as not to devalue your own encouragement.

Praise is therefore very valuable – within the family as well as at work. However, it is useful to observe your own way of praising more closely and to adjust it purposefully. In addition, invest in a warm, trusting relationship in order to give appreciation beyond direct praise.