“Good Job” – 2 Most Harmful Words in the English Language?

by Brenda Pohlman

Recognize This! – Consider carefully the words we use to recognize others and whether go-to phrases like ”good job” have a place in our recognition vocabulary.

Poster Advert for Whiplash MovieIf you were among the millions of movie fans around the world who tuned in to the Oscars yesterday, you may know that the title of this post refers to a line from one of the films nominated for Best Picture. Whiplash involves a relentlessly cruel bandleader who takes extreme measures to encourage (or crush perhaps – it was hard to tell – therein lies the brilliance of the film) the hopes of a young student musician aspiring to become one of the jazz greats. The movie poses lots of questions about how far people will go to achieve their dreams, and the motivations of others who support those dreams.

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 at something. Conversely, the words “not good enough” are more effective in encouraging them to work harder, practice more, do better. The leader claimed that if history’s jazz legends had frequently heard “good job” versus “not good enough,” they likely wouldn’t have become legends at all.

Hmm. After the shock in hearing the line, which goes against the very premise of the work I do everyday, I considered the idea. There may be validity in it, but I suspect it’s only in rare situations involving exceptionally driven and exceptionally talented people in certain highly competitive pursuits – musical phenoms, world-class athletes, scientific masterminds, and the like. With uniquely specialized talent, where a high-achieving individual has the potential to become truly the best in their field, perhaps it could be detrimental to recognize using words that might lessen one’s expectations of themselves.

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

The real power of workplace recognition is not in motivating the most elite levels of talent in the organization. It’s in mobilizing the mass majority – recognizing the vast middle tier that helps move the organization forward everyday. While recognition for a job well done may be demotivating to a rare few of the most talented among us, it’s exactly the thing that pushes the rest of us 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, while 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 impactful and memorable and leave the recipient with a positive connection between the words spoken or written and their own actions. Overused and vague phrases alone like “good job” or “thanks for everything” or “congrats on your success” with no substance don’t quite fit the bill. Here are five tips, which apply for both verbal and written recognition, that take the experience beyond shallow platitudes to meaningful, effective recognition moments:

  1. In order to reinforce the action that you’re acknowledging, ensure recognition is timely by acknowledging the contribution soon after it’s made.
  2. More than just a couple of words are required to show appreciation effectively. Be specific – go into some detail about how your colleague’s contribution made a difference.
  3. Make recognition feel sincere by using the words “thank you” (maybe the two most beneficial words in the English language!).
  4. Describe the personal characteristics that made this person’s action or achievement special.
  5. The words you use, and anything that accompanies those words in the form of an award, 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 recognition in impactful ways.

What are your favorite words, phrases or tips you use to effectively recognize others? (Or perhaps our star-struck readers might prefer to weigh in on a more classically Oscar-oriented topic….who won Best Dressed?)

Brenda Pohlman

About Brenda Pohlman

A senior recognition strategist and consultant for Globoforce, Brenda Pohlman might better be called a Recognition Detective. Brenda spends her days helping customers uncover and assess recognition practices and set new directions to achieve strategic goals. She has spent the majority of her career consulting with companies on a wide range of HR practices including employee engagement, performance management, rewards & recognition, talent assessment, and training. Brenda holds a B.A. in Psychology from Boston University.

3 Responses

  1. #4 is the essence of truly motivating anyone because it names what the person ‘is’, their unique goodness/talent. All the rest is about a compliment like, ‘nice sweater’ which is not about me but about the sweater designer. Instead, ‘you have such a way with choosing clothes, I mean look at that sweater on you, you are a natural style maven’ That is all about me with the sweater just a distant detail. I feel seen in the second statement and peripheral in the first one. In my Coaching training that second form is called and Acknowledgement

  2. Thank you for your comments Joseph. Your example is a good one. I especially like your choice of the words ‘seen’ versus ‘peripheral’ to describe the difference in the approaches.

  3. In my forthcoming book, “Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer,” I discuss this concept in the section titled “Sustaining the Passion of a Volunteer.”

    I clearly delineate the definitions for appreciation, recognition, incentive and reward, and then discuss their relative value in the volunteerism space.

    I could not agree more with your stance, as I define recognition as a type of feedback, one that is best delivered when it includes a description of the behavior or performance for which recognized has been earned.

    A trite “Good job” or “Just keep doing what you’re doing” is lazy, less effective leadership in practice. We shall call it what it is.

    Taking the time to be specific about what earned the leader or peer’s attention is time well invested.

    And, it need not be accompanied by a reward, or something tangible (another misnomer for a different conversation at a different time).

Leave a Reply