Is Praise Counterproductive?
The difference between praise and feedback is that feedback is useful.
Growing up in the Open Source world where the only currency is acknowledgement, I learned to be generous. It doesn’t cost anything to add an extra line to the credits, to thank the person who helped a little, as well as the person who helped a lot. Transitioning to more corporate environments, I tried to keep this ethos alive. There wasn’t a README to credit people, but at least I could make sure I cited where ideas came from in meetings and email. As a manager, I tried to be consistent and public with my appreciation.
Over time, I started to notice a pattern. Whenever I made a special point of praising somebody, they began to falter. They slowly stopped making the extra effort. Initially, I wrote this off to the fact that nobody can go the extra mile all the time. But the pattern persisted, and I started to wonder if correlation was pointing to causation. So I decided to experiment and starting offering praise as rarely as basic civility would allow. To my horror, it appeared to work. As I praised less, people seemed to work more effectively.<
I had no idea what to make of this. I worried that my silence was making people insecure. That I was creating a toxic environment. I worried that the reason they were working harder was because they were stressed. I worried that I was being a “bad manager” or worse a “bad person”.
Skip several years, I’d quit my job and gone travelling. One of my goals for my trip was to blog a story each week. I expected my stories to be thoroughly ignored, my only hope was that the practice would improve my writing skills. To my surprise my friends responded to my writing, and as they expressed their appreciation, I became paralysed. Instead of writing for myself, I felt an obligation to write something “good”. I felt that each piece had to live up to the one before it. Slowly, the joy I’d felt in writing my first few stories began to fade away. I didn’t stop writing, but I stopped finishing things. I could never get it right, I could never live up to that last piece of writing which everybody had liked so much.
Skip several more years, I’m reading “Winning” by Jack Welch. It’s an interesting book, though his cultural assumptions are very different from mine. As I’m reading the chapter about performance reviews, something clicks. I realise that in my entire career, not a single boss has ever given me useful feedback on my work as manager. I realise the hunger in me that something like his review strategy would answer. In a flurry of enthusiasm, I use his system to review myself, and then use it to review all the managers I’ve ever worked with. It seems to work.
Praise is fundamentally evaluative of the person, “good job!” or “wow, you are amazing.”1 It doesn’t explain, it judges, and judgement is always threatening. Implied in judgement is that this person has the right to judge you. That their opinion has the power to shape your life. The implicit threat is that they might not always judge so kindly.
Feedback is evaluative of the work. “This piece of software will allow us to save $1,000 a month.” “The client thought the email you sent was rude and cancelled his account.” Feedback is vital. It allows us to see our work in a broader context. It allows us to identify our weaknesses and strengths. It allows us to develop our skills and learn how best to participate within a team. Without feedback, we are blind and learning is made much more difficult. Worse, we run the risk of learning the wrong things.
As managers, we often do this exactly wrong. We give lots of praise (and some criticism) but rarely do we provide non-judgemental and objective feedback from which people can learn. Most of us want to do our job well, and to do it well what we need is information. We need other people's perspectives and other people's experience. As managers, first we need to learn to speak this language ourselves. And second, we need to create a culture of feedback, where everyone has the skills and feels safe to speak this language.
1) I’m still exploring these ideas, but at this stage I think it’s important to separate the concept of praise from courtesy. At least in western cultures, it is important to say “please” and “thank you”.