Is ‘good job’ a destructive phrase for employees?

In the Oscar-nominated film ‘Whiplash,’ a strict mentor decries the use of faint praise for an aspiring musician—but most employees thrive on positive feedback. Here’s a smart approach.

If you were among the millions of movie fans around the world who tuned in to the Academy Awards, you may know that the title of this post derives from a line from a Best Picture nominee.

Whiplash” involves a relentlessly cruel bandleader who takes extreme measures to encourage (or crush, perhaps—it’s hard to tell—therein lies the brilliance of the film) the hopes of a young musician aspiring to become a jazz great.

The movie looks at how far people will go to achieve their dreams, as well as the motives of those who help shape those dreams.

‘Good job’ vs ‘not good enough’

In one of his misguided motivational attempts, the bandleader declares to the student, “The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job.'”

I envisioned talent management professionals in cinemas the world over gasping in reaction to the blasphemy. The leader’s point is that these words imply “good enough” and only thwart any extra dedication to doing what it takes to achieve a goal.

In other words, if talented people are told “good job,” they are likely to settle and miss an opportunity to become truly great. Conversely, the words “not good enough” are more effective in encouraging them to work harder, practice more, do better. The leader asserted that if history’s jazz greats had frequently heard “good job” versus “not good enough,” they probably wouldn’t have become great at all.

Hmmm. After my shock at hearing that line—which goes against the very premise of the work I do every day—I considered the idea.

There may be validity in it, but I suspect it’s only in rare situations involving exceptionally driven, talented people in certain highly competitive pursuits—musical phenoms, world-class athletes, scientific masterminds, and the like.

With uniquely specialized talent, in cases when a high-achieving individual has the potential to become truly the best in his or her field, it could be detrimental to offer words that might lessen one’s expectations of oneself.

For the rest of us, however, hearing “good job” works wonders.

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‘Good job’ will mobilize most of your workforce

The real power of workplace recognition is not in motivating the most elite levels of talent in the organization. It’s in mobilizing the majority—recognizing the vast middle tier that helps move the organization forward every day. Though recognition for a job well done may be demotivating to a rare few superstars, it’s exactly the thing that pushes the rest of the staff forward.

This line did leave me wondering, though, about the words we use to recognize others. Despite being a fixture in our lexicon, “good job” alone hardly qualifies as bona fide recognition. So, although they’re not the most harmful two words in the English language, maybe in the most literal and generic sense “good job” isn’t really quite good enough at all.

Recognition should be potent and memorable and leave the recipient with a positive connection between the words and their own actions. Overused and vague phrases such as “good job” or “thanks for everything” or “congrats on your success” taken alone and with no substance don’t quite do the trick.

5 tips for effective recognition

So, here are five tips, which apply to both spoken and written recognition, that take the experience beyond shallow platitudes to meaningful, motivational moments:

  1. In order to reinforce the laudable action, ensure the recognition is timely by acknowledging the contribution soon after it’s achieved.
  2. Be specific; go into detail about how your colleague’s contribution made a difference.
  3. Make recognition sincere by using the words “thank you” (maybe the two most beneficial words in the English language).
  4. Describe the personal characteristics that made the action or achievement special.
  5. The words you use (and any reward that accompanies those words) should be aligned with the level of result achieved by the person you’re recognizing.

Check out this 2014 Globoforce blog post on 101 Effective Recognition Words for more tips on conveying appreciation in meaningful ways.

What are your favorite words, phrases or tips for recognizing others?

A version of this article first appeared on the Recognize This! blog.

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