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PROVERBS ON PRAISING OTHERS
Proverbs will help us apply religion where it counts---in the family, in work
and business, in care of our health, and in our relationship with others and
with God. Proverbs is a philosophical book that seeks to
answer the eternal question: How should we live? Proverbs presents to us the
wisdom of God for our daily living. It presents us with a much needed relational
theology. Its moral maxims put religion into the arena of daily relationships.
Kenneth Taylor concluded, “No other [portions of the Word] have such exciting, thoughtful wisdom as the Proverbs.”
The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.
A young man walked into a diner and asked to use a pay phone. The waitress behind the counter pointed him in the right direction and then eavesdropped as the man made his call.
Once connected to his party, the young man said in an enthusiastic voice, “Hello, Mr. Anderson. My name is Patrick DeBerg and I was just calling to ask whether you’d be interested in hiring a bright, hardworking sales manager to oversee your marketing staff. .. . Oh.. . I see. . . . You already have a bright, hardworking sales manager? OK. Well, thanks anyway.”
The young man walked back to the counter with a smug grin on his face, an expression that perplexed the waitress. “What are you smiling about?” she asked with a touch of attitude. “You just got turned down!”
“Well, actually,” the young man replied, “I didn’t. You see, I am that ‘bright, hardworking sales manager.’ I just wanted to make sure that my boss thought so too!”
This modern-day parable is, for good reason, becoming well-worn in both pulpits and business schools across the country. Pastors and professors like to remind their listeners that people want to know that others recognize their contribution. In fact, employees value such recognition more than almost anything else in the workplace. That’s not to minimize the importance of things like fair pay, job security, interesting work, and advancement opportunities. But beyond these obvious motivators, people also need to hear that they are doing well and that their effort is appreciated.
This need is so strong that a lot of the time, if starved for gratification, people will fill the void by shamelessly generating self-congratulations. Consider the all-too-familiar scenarios. Doesn’t almost every workplace have at least one person who has made a habit of telling people how busy he or she is? Aren’t there some people at work who regularly steer conversations in the direction of what they’ve achieved or expect to achieve? Hasn’t each one of us, at one time or another, subtly sought positive reinforcement from a superior who chose to keep it to himself? The desire for recognition is simply part of human nature.
At the same time, though, workplace accolades appear to be less available than in former days. Although the boss who makes praise part of his or her routine is not yet extinct, this person has been on the endangered species list for some time. Whether this is because managers are now more busy, or more prideful, or because they no longer see offering compliments and encouragement as part of their job, bosses who regularly reward with praise are the exception rather than the rule.
That’s unfortunate, especially since many experts have advocated using employee praise as a no-cost motivational tool. It’s even more unfortunate when one considers that this commonsensical recommendation has been around for about three thousand years.
PROVERBS ON PRAISING OTHERS
Proverbs has a lot to say on this topic---a testimony to the issue’s significance. In particular, it counsels us on the value of praise as well as on the specifics of how and when to bestow it. The proverbs contain at least five reminders on why and how to praise our subordinates and colleagues. Let’s look briefly at each.
1. Offer Praise as a Reward
From a divine perspective, how important is praising others? So important that God punctuates His book of wisdom with words about the value of praise. Indeed, He concludes Proverbs with a discourse that applauds “The Wife of Noble Character.” Proverbs 31 is the capstone of the book; its final twenty-two verses present this woman as one to admire, a remarkable person by any standard.
The woman celebrated as ideal in Proverbs 31 is one who hand-knits clothing and linen, who brings food from great distances, who cares for her family day and night, and takes care of the poor and needy. This tireless woman also plants vineyards and even owns a profitable business. She speaks with wisdom and has no anxiety about the future.
Given those impressive attributes, how should one thank such a woman? What does she deserve as recompense? The last two verses of Proverbs answer this very question:
Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. (Proverbs 31:30—31 NIV)
Among the many things that can be said of this passage, three points stand out for our purposes here. First, we learn that praise of another individual is a reward---and not just any reward. Praise is the consummate reward for a job well-done. Proverbs does not say that this prolific worker should get a merit raise, a bonus, a new Lexus chariot, or a weekend at the Jerusalem spa. Instead, the ideal reward for the ideal woman is that she be praised.
Second, the very last verse of Proverbs tells us the central reason that we should not neglect praise: It is something one has “earned.” That is, similar to a paycheck or a promotion, recognition of another’s accomplishments is portrayed as a responsibility we have toward each other. The praiseworthy individual is entitled to our acclaim.
In our present cultural context, though, it would be easy to discount this notion of entitlement, since it seems like just another in the endless parade of contrived entitlements that people are now demanding. However, our culture should not blind us to an important truth: God does not regard praising subordinates as pandering. It is not just some politically correct alternative to genuine management. Rather, praise is an integral part of God’s compensation and motivation program.
2. Praise in Public Whenever Possible
A third lesson from the passage is that we should praise one another “at the city gate.” In ancient times, cities were like fortresses, built with huge, protective walls surrounding them. The walls were continuous except for the several city gates that were opened during daylight hours to permit people to come and go. Because of the gates’ central location and proximity to visiting travelers, goods were routinely traded and legal matters were handled just inside those gates.
It is in this high traffic area that Proverbs 31:31 says that the wife of noble character is to be praised. Recognition of one’s good works, the verse says, is best done publicly. Public veneration elevates the honor. It renders the praise even more rewarding to the individual who has earned it, since everyone now knows what this person has accomplished. Moreover, from a management perspective, public praise is also effective because it plainly signals to others what constitutes commendable behavior. Christ used this approach as well. When He lauded Peter for confessing Jesus as Messiah, Christ did so in front of all the other apostles (see Matthew 16:17—20 NIV). When Christ praised a sinful woman for her repentance at His feet, Christ was surrounded by Pharisees (see Luke 7:44—47 NIV). And when the centurion demonstrated trust in Christ’s power, Jesus turned to those following Him and said: “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (Matthew 8:10 NIV). In doing these things, Jesus not only validates praise as a reward, He also models for Christians the public behaviors we are to emulate.
3. Praise Should Be Timely
Notice, too, that in all of these instances, Jesus praised not just publicly, but also immediately. Christ did not delay but, instead, seized the moment to acknowledge a person who had earned it. Proverbs 15:23 parallels this teaching:
A man finds joy in giving an apt reply---
and how good is a timely word!
Untimely praise may be empty praise. As is true of any behavior, a significant gap between the behavior and the reward undermines the reinforcement potential of that reward. By contrast, “timely” words are fruitful words. They are an “apt reply” to a deserving individual.
The New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version further illuminate this timing element by rendering the Hebrew: “a word in season, how good it is!” NRSV; [“is it” KJV]. In those translations, the proverb implies that the praise need not be instant, but it should be in reasonable proximity to the behavior. God’s wisdom invites us to acknowledge praiseworthy behavior sooner rather than later---in season rather than a few seasons down the line.
4. Praising Others is Gratifying
Proverbs 15:23 also notes that the timely, apt reply brings joy not just to the hearer, but to the deliverer as well. Most of us have experienced the pleasant sensation of passing along deserved recognition, so the text serves not as a revelation but as a reminder that this “joy” comes to those who freely praise others. Moreover, as will be discussed in the next major section of this chapter, “joy” may come in another form to the manager who habitually praises subordinates: It may come in the form of a more loyal, more productive, more committed workforce.
5. Praise Can Be Nonverbal As Well
Lastly, Proverbs counsels us that the bestowal of praise need not be one-dimensional; instead, it can be communicated through various avenues. Two verses attest to the fact that something as simple as a look can have a revitalizing effect:
A cheerful look brings joy to the heart,
and good news brings health to the bones. (Proverbs 15:30 NIV)
When a king’s face brightens, it means life;
his favor is like a rain cloud in spring. (Proverbs 16:15 NIV)
These texts not only further support the value of praise (figuratively speaking, praise “brings joy to the heart” and “health to the bones”); they also inform us that the mere expression on a manager’s face can have lasting, positive effects on subordinates. One has many options for lauding others’ accomplishments, but we should not forget---especially when pressed for time---that beyond the standard verbal and written “that-a-boy,” and beyond the employee-of-the-month plaque and the name in the company newsletter, simply a “cheerful look” is a reward. When the “[leader’s] face brightens,” Proverbs 16:15 tells us, it is akin to something that was life-giving to the community that originally received the wisdom: a spring rain cloud that would nurture crops and produce an abundant harvest.
Today, such an expression on the boss’s face remains a sign of good things to come. And it costs a manager nothing! Building “life-giving” morale does not get any more inexpensive than this.
SOME INSIGHTS FROM THE ACADEMIC AND PRACTITIONER RESEARCH
Findings from academic researchers affirm scriptural teaching and provide some additional aspects to consider.1 First, there is little debate about the biblical and intuitive notion that employee recognition can have a positive effect on one’s performance.2 It is generally agreed by both academics and practitioners that periodically acknowledging an employee’s contribution is critical for both learning and motivation.
Second, most managers do not offer enough praise, in part because supervisors tend to underestimate the importance that subordinates attach to feedback and to overestimate the value of formal rewards.3 As a result, it is often the case that informal, positive feedback is only available when employees proactively seek it out for themselves.4 The practitioner literature affirms these conclusions as well; the staunchest proponents of narrowing the praise gap are best-selling authors Ken Blanchard and Bob Nelson.5
Third, positive reinforcement tends to be most useful if it actually indicates why the employee’s performance was effective.6 The statement: “You did a first-rate job on the report, Dan; nice work!” is certainly better than saying nothing, but it also omits crucial reinforcing information. Taking the time to explain why it was “nice work” (e.g., the report was clear, it was succinct, it was creatively formatted) increases the likelihood that the specific commendable behavior will be repeated in the future.
Fourth, in situations where both positive and negative feedback will be given (e.g., a performance review), researchers have found that subordinates are more likely to accept the negative feedback as accurate if the positive feedback is offered first.7 The practitioner literature is quick to add, though, that whenever possible, positive and negative comments should be delivered separately. Appending a “but on the other hand to an accolade, many rightfully argue, has the effect of nullifying any beneficial aspects of praise.8 Whenever possible, then, avoid following bad news on the heels of good.
Finally, it is not always the case that more praise is better. There is apparently a point of diminishing returns. On the academic side, one of the best field studies to date concluded that feedback every two weeks is about as effective as feedback every week.9 From the practitioners, we hear that employees occasionally have a cynicism about excessive praise from above and infer that it may just be a tool to manipulate them into working harder.1O Furthermore, excessive praise can culminate in employee insensitivity to that positive feedback, so to maximize its impact, praise should be used judiciously.
MAKE PRAISE STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Neglecting to give credit and thanks where it is due can affect both the commitment of the slighted individual and the supervisor’s relationship with this individual. We’ve all been there, having earned something yet having seen it withheld for no reason other than apparent ingratitude. Whether this occurs in the workplace, in a marriage, or in some other capacity of servanthood, that withholding is at the very least frustrating. And over time, it engenders resentment, disloyalty, a “do-the-minimum” mind-set, and in some cases, a severing of the relationship. Under-appreciation will indeed have its consequences, largely because it is the delinquent remission of what has been “earned.”
Accordingly, in a business context, Scripture invites every manager to make employee acclamation standard operating procedure. One CEO made this a routine by placing five coins in his pocket at the beginning of each day and then moving one coin to the other pocket each time he complimented a subordinate. In another case, a restaurant owner whose schedule was too hectic to recognize his staff during work hours took a few minutes after closing time to jot personal notes to those who made a real difference that day.11
There are no organizational constraints tying a manager’s hand in this area, so the possibilities for making employee commendation a habit are unlimited. The challenge for the Christian manager, then, is to adopt one of these possibilities in order to more faithfully reward employees with the praise they have earned. (209-220)
1. Much of the following is derived from the literature review of Wayne F. Cascio in Applied Psychology in Human Resource Management, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998), 270—71.
2. Daniel R. Ilgen, Cynthia D. Fisher, and M. Susan Taylor, “Consequences of Individual Feedback on Behavior in Organizations,” Journal of Applied Psychology; 64, no. 4 (1979): 349—71.
3. Martin Greller, “Evaluation of feedback sources as a function of role and organizational level,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 65, no. 1 (1980): 24—27.
4. David M. Herold and Charles K. Parsons, “Assessing the Feedback Environment in Work Organizations: Development of the Job Feedback Survey,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 70, no.2 (1985): 260—305.
5. Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, The One Minute Manager (New York: William Morrow, 1982); Bob Nelson, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (New York: Workman, 1994).
6. Jacob Jacoby et al., “When Feedback Is Ignored: The Disutility of Outcome Feedback,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, no. 3 (1984): 531—45. See also Joseph J. Martocchio and James Dulebohn, “Performance Feedback Effects in Training: The Role of Perceived Accountability,” Personnel Psychology, 47, no, 2 (1994): 358—73.
7. Dianna L. Stone, Hal C. Gueutal, and Barbara McIntosh, “The Effects of Feedback Sequence and Expertise of the Rater on Perceived Feedback Accuracy,” Personnel Psychology, 37, no.3 (1984): 487—506.
8. See, for example, Bob Nelson, “Try Praise: It’s the One Incentive Any Small Company Can Afford,” Inc., 1 September1996, 115
9. Jagdeep S. Chhokar and Jerry A. Wallin, “A Field Study on the Effect of Feedback Frequency on Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, no. 3 (1984): 524—30.
10. See, for example, Mark H. McCormack, “Being Praised Isn’t Always What It Seems,” The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, 3 June 1997, 12C.
11. Both of these examples come from Bob Nelson, “Try Praise,” Inc., 1 September 1996, 115
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