The (Sometimes Destructive) Power of Praise

“I praise loudly, I blame softly.” – Catherine the Great

The rabbi at JC’s wedding was a friendly looking fellow, and his sermon was a friendly compromise between “Lessons From the Torah” and “Daytime-TV Platitudes.” He talked about the usual things – the purpose of marriage, its historic underpinnings, and its potential in the postmodern world of multiculturalism and ecumenicalism. These topics he dispatched with relative ease.

When it came time to give the Big Advice about how to get along for the long run, he had this to say:

“If I could say only one thing to you… if I were restricted to a single piece of advice about your future… it would be this: Praise.

“Make it a habit to praise each other, to compliment your partner freely and often when he or she does something that pleases you.

“It is astonishing how powerful simple praise can be. It can motivate the lethargic, stimulate deep affection, and unlock doors that have been bolted shut for ages. Praise can brighten your spirit, cheer up those you love, and make the days that come smoother, happier, and more successful for you.

“There is not enough praise in the world and far too much criticism. Praise your partner every chance you get, and you will have a happier, healthier, and more spiritually fulfilled relationship, now and forever.”

I was moved by what the rabbi said, and wondered if this advice would apply in the world of business.

Certainly, there are plenty of business gurus who would agree. “Shower your employees with praise, and they’ll sparkle with good ideas and productivity,” they might say.

But when I discussed it with KY, she made a very good point. “There is a big difference between spousal relationships and most work relationships,” she said. “The first type is one of equals. The second type is hierarchical.”

Very true.

In business, we use praise to encourage desired results. And so, it has pragmatic (or manipulative, if you prefer) value. Praise can indeed be a great tool for motivating and reinforcing behavior, but it can also be destructive.

For praise to work in a subordinate/superior relationship, it has to come from a person who is respected, be sincerely offered, and be well-deserved. Anything less than that will be seen as shabby – a fawning compliment by an obsequious subordinate or meaningless encouragement from a perennial Pollyanna.

The most powerful praise is, ironically, that which comes from a predominantly critical person. And the withholding of praise can be as much a motivator as its provision.

When praising employees, keep the following in mind:

1. Be careful with your praise (and even more careful with your criticism).

If you give abundant and unregulated praise to your subordinates, it is likely to backfire. They will believe all the hype you are throwing at them. Or they will see you as insincere. Or both.

2. Praise the action rather than the person.

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.

Praising the action – the specific behavior – says, “Your value resides in what you do. So long as you do well, you will be valued.” This message focuses the employee’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.

3. Be sincere.

Some managers believe they can criticize effectively simply by starting off with a bit of praise… and then adding a “but.” This is a common tactic, but it almost always backfires because the person who is being manipulated sees right through it. Other managers believe they can get an employee to feel good about himself – and repeat the things he is doing well – by jacking up the intensity of their praise. But even with the best of intentions, overblown, effusive praise defeats the purpose. The approval will come across as vacuous – almost worthless.

4. Be fair.

It shouldn’t be your goal to please your employees, but the truth is, employees will often (though not always) like you better if you’ve supported them and given them credit for their accomplishments. And having your employees think of you as a fair manager can benefit you when you’re looking for a promotion or a new job. So praise them generously and publicly when they deserve it. Criticize them carefully and privately when they make mistakes.

5. Be specific.

“Good job” is a compliment your employees will always welcome. But if that’s the way you praise every good deed or job, they’ll start to wonder whether you’re really paying attention. Make it a personal policy to explain exactly what it is about an employee’s behavior or performance that you like and why you like it. This tells the person not only what action or behavior should be repeated in the future but also what goal you are looking for.

[Ed. Note: Michael Masterson is one of the core contributors behind ETR’s new Internet business-building program.] [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.]