This continues a series on advice for new top editors in Digital First Media newsrooms. Some of the advice might be good for veteran editors, too, and for editors in other companies.
One of the most important things a top editor does is praise people specifically for doing good work. I have heard more than one editor dismiss the value of praise, saying they don’t praise people just for doing their jobs. They don’t understand how to praise and they don’t understand the power of praise as a leadership technique.
When I was at the American Press Institute, I collected data that underscored the value of praise. Before some of our seminars for editors, I would ask the participants and their staffs parallel questions about the editors’ leadership practices. Two factors relating to praise stood out from those questionnaires of more than 100 editors and their staffs:
- The editors who are generous with praise (according to themselves and their staffs) are also the most inspiring editors. While I encountered lots of editors who dismissed the value of praise, I don’t recall one who didn’t consider himself or herself to be inspiring to the staff. I’m not saying that the praise is what inspires, but the failure to praise certainly harms the potential to inspire. And in one case, where an editor wrote on the email questionnaire that he didn’t praise people for doing their jobs, I could document that his staff felt discouraged, rather than inspired, when they talked to him.
- However much you think you praise, your staff thinks you praise less. I would ask people to score the frequency of praise on a scale of 1 to 5. Whether you rated yourself high or low, your staff invariably rated you a point or so lower. Editors who gave themselves 5s for regular praise got 4s from their staffs and editors who acknowledged with 2s that they seldom praised got 1s from their staffs, who didn’t remember any praise. So praise the staff more than you feel comfortable praising.
Praise is one of a new editor’s most important daily chores. However busy you get, take a few minutes to deliver specific praise to the staff members who have best served your community or executed your priorities that day.
I’m not talking here about vague “good work” praise, which can feel phony, insincere and counterproductive. I’m talking about specific praise that tells the person what succeeded and why. Specific praise tells people you actually noticed their work. It underscores your priorities and reinforces progress toward the goals you’ve communicated to your staff. As I’ve noted, I made Twitter and liveblogging high priorities for my staff, so when staff members excelled in tweeting or liveblogging, they heard specific praise from the editor about why that liveblog or series of tweets worked.
I’ve heard some good editors and leadership trainers say that you should praise publicly and criticize privately. I think that oversimplifies. Sometimes you should praise publicly. But sometimes a handwritten note or a personal face-to-face discussion in your office or at her desk is more powerful. I think you should vary your praise approach.
I get almost embarrassed thinking how good I felt after receiving a handwritten note from an editor after hustling effectively on a big story. I didn’t want to give my editors that much control over my emotions. But the praise mattered to me (more than I acknowledged to the editor). Lurking within nearly every journalist is a tiny sliver of a first-grader who loves getting a star from the teacher (even if they’ll never let you know).
In difficult times, praise is especially valuable because you may not be able to reward excellent performance with the pay raise or bonus that the journalist deserves. Praise is no substitute for tangible compensation, and you should praise specifically even if your organization is prospering.
But sincere, specific praise is a reward you can afford every day. Spend it liberally while you’re fighting and/or waiting to be able to be able to pay your staff better.
Of course, some of your staff members don’t deserve praise. That’s why the next post in this series (coming Monday) will address criticism.
*I’m pretty sure the phrase “praise is free but priceless” is not original to me. It sounds like something I heard somewhere. I Googled it hoping to attribute and couldn’t locate an original source.
— Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) May 3, 2013
— Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) May 3, 2013
@stevebuttry I try my best to praise publicly, and try to emphasize that what one person does really makes the whole team better.
— Luis Hernandez (@Luisindc18) May 3, 2013
@stevebuttry If I ever become an editor, I’ll really try to keep it in mind. And interesting to see what a lack of praise can do to morale.
— Karen K. Ho (@karenkho) May 3, 2013
— Lisa Fung (@lfung) May 3, 2013
— jmara (@jmara) May 3, 2013
Jill Geisler’s The No-News Manager
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Praise
Jill Geisler’s What Great Bosses Know about Feedback (I’m quoted)
Edward Miller’s Be Careful With Praise
Earlier posts with advice for editors
Here are topics I am planning on covering in this series (the order is tentative). What other topics should I cover?
- Accuracy and accountability
- Standing up for your staff
- The power of questions
- Respecting authorship
- Face-to-face communication
- Personal life
- Time management
- Developing new leaders
- The editor’s blog
- Role models
The posts probably will run daily Monday-Friday for the next few weeks. If you’re another Digital First editor (or a leader or former leader in another organization) and would like to propose a guest post as part of the series, email me at sbuttry (at) digitalfirstmedia (dot) com and we’ll discuss. I’m not interested in a post of general leadership tips. I’d rather have a post on a particular leadership topic. Feel free to suggest a post that might address a topic I’ve already covered, but from a different perspective. I welcome posts that disagree with my advice. I will invite a few editors I respect to write posts.