Words of praise go a long way in reinforcing an employee`s efforts, but putting them in writing makes the praise more powerful and could reap some surprising benefits.

“You did a great job, Mike. Thanks.” It`s a small, yellowed, dog-eared note you`ll find in my scrapbook among the certificates, clippings, and commendations. I saved it because it was a profound turning point in my career and an important lesson for me in management skills. Better than a textbook, it taught me about the value of recognizing performance and acknowledging effort. The chief who penned it 25 years ago not only was thoughtful, he was smart. Because he took a few seconds to personally thank me, he ensured himself of a fiercely loyal employee who prides himself on going the extra mile.


To tell you the truth, my response to his note surprised even me. It was subtle; but suddenly I felt a more personal connection to my supervisor and became aware that he appreciated my contribution to our work. I thought I was already putting forth maximum effort; but, after the note, I worked a little harder and did a little better. I found out that I was not unique in my response. Whether the chief understood it at the time or just got lucky, he was winning at the “Carrot-Stick Game,” made famous at corporate management conferences by popular speaker and biologist Dr. John Paling. The name of the game comes from the tale of trying to get a donkey to move. One way is to flick it on the rump with a stick. The other is to hold a carrot out in front of it. Using the stick supposes that the donkey will move to avoid pain. Using the carrot supposes it will move toward something pleasurable. The great debate is over which method is more effective.

Dr. Paling has his own unique way of settling the argument. First, he asks one person, his subject, to leave the room. Dr. Paling then hides an object in his classroom. Everyone in the class except his subject knows where the object is. When the subject returns, he must find the hidden object, using the classmates to help. In one scenario (“The Stick”), the classmates use negative reinforcement. As the person gets farther from the object, they shout insults and question the person`s intelligence. The person (usually ruffled by the abuse) soon discovers that the fewer the insults, the closer he is coming to finding the hidden object.

The second scenario (“The Carrot”) is radically different. As the person gets closer to the hidden object, the classmates praise, cheer, and shout encouragement. What makes this so interesting is that the person will always find the object faster when praised and encouraged, even though the numbers of clues may be identical. It makes sense. We work better in a friendly environment. When we are afraid or angry, we shut down. The phenomenon has been compared with working in a foxhole. When someone is shooting at you, you get your head down and move as little as possible, trying to become invisible. And no one is very effective when immobile and invisible.

So, how does John Paling`s “Carrot-Stick Game” apply to praising effort in a firefighter setting? Simple. Like “The Carrot,” praise opens up the channels and helps a person work more effectively.


Colleen Hayes, human resources director for the Athletic Association at the University of Florida and an expert on employee-supervisor relations, recently discussed the merits of praise. She teaches administrators and supervisors to give constant feedback–good and bad–so there are no surprises in work or performance reviews. On the other hand, she builds a strong case for “good” feedback. Supervisors, she notes, often take good performance for granted and forget to acknowledge the extra effort it takes to get a job to that level; and, she adds, the payoff for praise is “immeasurable.”

There are moments in the fire service when no praise except a full departmental commendation is acceptable, but there will always be opportunities to acknowledge jobs well done. Remember that heroism worthy of commendation stems from dramatic opportunity, but there are men and women who show up every shift, do their best, and are quietly heroic in their own ways. And, you should seize the opportunities to praise as they present themselves. Although a pat on the back is a wonderful gesture, nothing is more effective than putting praise in writing. Hayes refers to the written word as “concrete positive feedback.” It takes only a moment to jot down “Good job!” on a note and attach it to a firefighter`s clipboard. If you have more time, you can write a letter outlining the accomplishment and close with a sincere thank you. If you really want to do it right, you should put a copy in the employee`s permanent file and send the original to the firefighter`s home, where he or she can share it with the proud family.


Hayes, when asked if there might be a “downside” to putting praise in writing, noted that praise may be the focus of such excitement that the employee may concentrate on the positive aspects of his or her performance, forgetting there are areas in job performance that still may need attention. She reiterated the need for constant feedback so the letter of praise does not overshadow any hope of improvement. In other words, don`t let the employee think he or she has achieved perfection. You don`t need to diffuse the letter with negative remarks, such as, “You were great on this, but you are awful at that.” You might temper your words: “You were great on this. I look forward to continuing improvement.” Tempering may be especially important if the personnel file is ever used to dispute a bad performance review. You may feel indefensible if the employee challenges a bad evaluation and waves your letter at the review board. Hayes says, “Letters of praise, no matter how they are written, can be defended as attempts to encourage; but you will have an easier time if you are providing constant feedback and the performance review is no surprise.” Should you put praise in writing, even though it might have a downside? Without hesitation, Hayes says, “Yes.”


Not all letters of praise will come from you. Customers will also write. Many stations put letters of thanks and praise up on the bulletin board for everyone to see. Good idea. A copy of the letter should go also into the appropriate personnel file. If more than one person is cited, the letter should be copied and distributed to each file. Additionally, it wouldn`t hurt to send copies to upper management, no matter who or where they might be. A citizen`s acknowledgment of a job well done should be widely shared. It reflects favorably on the entire department.


When an employee does a good job and you want to reward the employee with a pat on the back, take out your pen and put your compliments in writing. It will become a valuable complement to the employee`s personnel file and will provide a wonderful moment in the person`s career. But, more than that, a letter of praise becomes a “carrot”–positive reinforcement that will reap benefits in enhanced job performance, employee satisfaction, and loyalty. As Hayes says, the benefits of such a small effort on your part are “immeasurable.” I ought to know. I still have a small, yellowed, dog-eared note–seven words written 25 years ago–that taught me the lifelong value of saying, “Thank you.”

MICHAEL F. STALEY, a former firefighter and EMT, is a motivational speaker and heads the Port Orange, Florida-based Golden Hour Motivational Resources, through which he also provides consulting and speaking services. He can be reached at (800) 622-6453.

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