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Bonuses. Toasts at the holiday office party. It's recognition season at the workplace—time to think about the importance of showing appreciation all year.

There's plenty of advice out there about giving criticism (although you might not know it, given how many managers bungle the affair). Tips on giving praise? Not so much. Yet in my conversations with senior managers around the country, I often hear complaints about leaders who need lessons in the art. Here, a few pointers:

Keep the praise proportional. If you slather it on when just a "nice job" will do, employees and co-workers will doubt your sincerity—or think you're surprised by their competence. A corollary: Be specific. People respect a boss who knows which tasks are the toughest to pull off.

Pat the right back. Nothing makes employees more cynical than the boss's public praise of someone whose work on a project was minimal or nonexistent.

Don't mix the message. "Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, and, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer." That's Alexander Pope's 18th century advice on how to give a "compliment" that transmits your negative feelings. ("I must say, Henderson, you never waste paper at the copy machine.") Resist the urge. And speaking of mixing: It's best not to deliver an important message, even a positive one, at an end-of-year bonus talk. Most employees are just listening for the number.

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