What The Rabbi Said

“The advantage of doing one’s praising to oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.” – Samuel Butler (The Way of All Flesh, 1903)

The rabbi at JC’s wedding was a friendly looking fellow, and his sermon was a friendly compromise between “Lessons From the Torah” and “Made-for-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 (and, to his credit, he never once made a cheap crack about his beleaguered Catholic counterparts).

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 how this advice would apply to 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.

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

Very true.

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!

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

For praise to work in a subordinate/superior relationship, it has to come from someone you respect, be sincerely offered, and be well-deserved. Anything less than that will be seen as something 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.

I’ve talked about this subject before — and my earlier stance still seems justified. The way to have praise work is to:

1. Give it only when you mean it.

2. Give it with a full heart and without compromise.

3. Make it specific so the recipient knows you mean it.

Getting back to KY’s point, there are business relationships that are “equal” — those you have with colleagues and partners. In those cases, it seems to me, you can be much more liberal with praise without damaging the relationship. You don’t want to be (or seem to be) parsimonious. More on that in a future message.

[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.]