Praise Behavior, Not People, for Best Results

I was given a great insight into the skill of praise yesterday. It’s going to make me a better manager of talented people — and maybe a better father. Perhaps it will work for you too. MN and I were talking about a problem you sometimes encounter when you praise “too much” or “too often.” Here’s the dilemma. You found a potential star performer — maybe your protégé. (See Messages #107 and #215.) You are very pleased with his early performance. He’’s not quite there yet, but you want to make your praise pure and positive. “Hey, kid,” you say, “you’’re a genius.”

This has a very positive initial effect. He works even harder, and you keep telling him what a natural he is. You become a hero to him (temporarily), because you’’ve recognized his talent. He becomes your savior, because you see in him everything that you want to see. Gradually, though, something else happens that you didn’’t anticipate. Word gets out that he’’s a favorite of yours. That damages (a little) everybody involved — him, you, and the envious. It’s not a big issue, so you ignore it. He continues to do well, and his critics grow quiet. But along the way, he comes to the conclusion that maybe you were right . . . maybe he is a genius. He becomes less likely to seek your counsel, less interested in other viewpoints. He may even become somewhat temperamental and demanding.

Eventually he becomes — at least, in your opinion — spoiled. From his point of view, you become a burden. The relationship may dwindle, even terminate. Or something else happens. He goes cold and decides he is not a genius after all but a fraud. He loses confidence and gives up. Bad for you and bad for him. The bottom line is this: If you praise the person and not the action, you risk spoiling the person and your relationship with him. If you praise the action, the person will get the idea that his future value is based on his actions — as it should be — rather than on his intrinsic worth. In other words, he will realize that his value to the business is based on his performance, not his talents. New Agers would disagree. They want you to tell your key people, “Your value resides in you, not in what you do. You are essentially good, and there is nothing you can do or say that will diminish that.”

This is the kind of New Age psychobabble that sounds good (if you are taking Quaaludes) but does more harm than good. It’s much better to praise the action — the specific behavior. This says, “Your value resides in what you do. So long as you do well, you will be valued.” This message focuses your protégé’s attention where it should be — on his actions and accomplishments. And it acknowledges a very necessary truth: that if he changes his behavior and does not continue to perform, he will become less valuable. That — like it or not — is a fact of life.

MN discovered this wonderful and powerful idea from a TV program. (So, despite what I said last week, I guess you can sometimes benefit from watching TV.) It was a show about children. Two groups were studied. The children in one group were told (by parents and teachers) how wonderful THEY were, while those in the other group were praised only for their good behavior. As you’’ve probably already guessed, the first group, although it performed well, did not perform nearly as well as the second group. Moreover, the second group was better mannered and much less self-centered.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]