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`A Job Well Done The Case for Praise

TEXT to love, appreciation may be the most awkward thing to beg for. "I don't get any appreciation" has the same whiny sound as Rodney Dangerfield's tag line, "I don't get no respect."

Yet the need for appreciation is so profound that it can be worth almost any effort. From the first-grader hoping for a gold star from his teacher to the hostess waiting for compliments from her dinner guests, the longing for recognition knows no boundaries of age or class.

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The latest reminder of its value comes from the workplace. In a nationwide study of 100 manufacturing and service companies, the New York-based Conference Board found that recognizing employees' contributions with noncash awards can play an important role in successful management.

Some companies spotlight employees in corporate publications and feature them on bulletin boards or a "Wall of Fame." Others rely on ceremonies and celebrations. Still others send personal letters of commendation. As Kathryn Troy, author of the report, explains, "An expression of appreciation for a job well done affirms employees' value to an organization."

In similar vein, the Calesa Foundation in Aspen, Colo., recently honored 52 schoolteachers in Massachusetts as "Terrific Teachers Making a Difference." Edward Calesa, head of the foundation, describes his pilot program as "an attempt to recognize and celebrate teachers and the power they have to positively influence the lives of children."

"Terrific" is not an adjective routinely used to describe teachers in the 1990s. Never mind that teachers are increasingly expected to act as surrogate parents and to perform such nonacademic tasks as distributing condoms and keeping guns and drugs out of the classroom. And never mind that many are working with frozen salaries and no contracts, or that they must spend their own money to buy supplies for ever-larger classes. When the subject turns to education, teachers are far more likely to receive crit icism than well-earned praise.

From the classroom to the boardroom, and everywhere in between, recognition may be more important than ever. In an era of layoffs and restructuring, job security is disappearing fast. So is loyalty, the glue that once held employers and employees together through even the most difficult times. Praise and appreciation won't save positions that must be eliminated, but they can bring a measure of humanity and good will to a climate of uncertainty and distrust.

Still, a paradox exists. The more important praise becomes, the more it seems to be regarded as little more than a public-relations gimmick. In the corporate world, the assumption sometimes seems to be that real professionals don't need stroking. And in politics, where negative campaigning has been elevated to an art form, candidates and others tend to treat insults as the truth. Anything spoken in anger or criticism is somehow equated with upfront honesty. Anything complimentary, or anything characteriz ed by a smile or politeness, is taken to be dishonesty and lies, even though as many lies may be told in anger as with a smile.

Giving praise and recognition can never substitute for paying employees a just wage. Compliments won't cover the rent or put food on the table. And singling out only a few people for formal recognition can't take the place of more widespread, informal types of appreciation, such as an impromptu pat on the back or a heartfelt "Well done!" echoing down the corridor or through the classroom.

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In challenging times, a little extra encouragement seems called for, if it's deserved. When the going gets tough, the tough may get going, but everybody else can benefit from a nibble of the carrot instead of a verbal whack from the stick.

The late Alice Roosevelt Longworth got good mileage out of her salty motto, "If you have nothing good to say about anybody, sit down beside me." But today, when bashing has become too much the vogue, is it time to declare a temporary cease-fire and leave empty that attack chair next to Alice? Perhaps the new motto for the decade - in the workplace, on the campaign trail, and at home - could be taken straight from an old Johnny Mercer song: "Accentuate the positive."

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