How to motivate high performers

High performers need positive feedback; they do a great job and they should have that acknowledged. However, phrases like “great job” or “nice work” are so vague as to be virtually useless. And in some cases, they may even do harm.

Let’s imagine that one of your high performers just did a great job on a report. What made their work great? Well, perhaps they got it done three days ahead of schedule. And maybe they added some extra data analyses that you hadn’t thought to request.

Now, your high performer has just done great and hard work, with extra effort and creativity, and we come along and say “great job.” There are a few problems with that. First, it sounds like we don’t understand everything the high performer accomplished (i.e., beat the deadline and made a better report). Second, it can sound like we don’t appreciate everything they accomplished.

And third, the phrase “great job” has little pedagogical value. It doesn’t teach the high performer which of their terrific behaviors you would like to see repeated in the future (beating deadlines and adding extra analyses).


So what could you say instead of “great job”? Try this:

“Pat, the way you got that report done three days ahead of schedule means a lot to the customer, and to me. And the extra data analyses you did were really creative and added a lot of value to the report because you discovered the root cause of the customer’s issues. Thank you.”

That little script takes more time than saying “great job.” But isn’t that extra 60 seconds worth it? You just showed that you understand, and appreciate, the particulars of their accomplishments. And you told your high performer exactly what they should keep doing in the future. That’s quite a bit of value for an extra 60 seconds of effort.

Let’s imagine that you just delivered a major presentation to your biggest client. It was well received, in part because one of your employees gave you some key insights a week beforehand.

You could say “thanks for the feedback.” But again, that’s pretty weak. So instead you could say:

“When you pointed out how the client would like those extra data analyses, that turned the presentation. And the fact that you offered that insight a full week before the presentation made sure we could do justice to it. Thank you again.”

In both of these examples, we transformed vague praise (e.g. “great job”) into positive reinforcement. Sure, praise is nice (it is, after all, an expression of appreciation). But positive reinforcement increases the likelihood that your high performers will repeat their terrific behaviors in the future. Praise is too often banal and clichéd, whereas positive reinforcement is a central piece of operant conditioning.

Positive reinforcement isn’t praise. It’s a teaching tool that addresses a well-documented psychological principle that says that desirable behavior—when reinforced— gets repeated. Leaders who communicate a clear message that says, “The thing you just did right there; that way…it’s good. Do more of it,” deliver positive feedback that increases the frequency high performer behavior.

Most leaders wait until something goes wrong before they even think about giving employee feedback. And then it’s only negative. Negative reinforcement can work to cease unwanted behavior, but it does nothing to optimize performance, nor is it nearly as powerful a teaching tool as positive reinforcement. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of negative reinforcement knows, the responding motivation is to figure out the best way to avoid getting “yelled at” again. Negative reinforcement might stop an employee’s undesirable behavior, but there’s no guarantee that the behavior that replaces it will be even close to what you want.

You don’t need to blow constant smoke to keep your high performers motivated. In fact, doling out meaningless praise is guaranteed to work against you. But if you offer specific positive reinforcement when warranted, you’ll keep your high performers inspired. And you’ll actually increase the frequency of their high performer behavior.

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