The Praise Report

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

(This is a re-post from April 2009)

I write this on the eve of the 3rd day of a training session of our Facilitative Leadership course, where the last of 7 practices,“Celebrate Accomplishment”, often gets the short shrift on this last day of training. The verdict is still out in terms of whether we will give it its just due for tomorrow’s class. Yet, I find myself wrestling with a provocative body of information I became aware of through a recent tweet I received on the subject of praise.

According to a study performed by the National Institute for Physiological Sciences:

Our findings indicate that the social reward of a good reputation in the eyes of others is processed in an anatomically and functionally similar manner to monetary rewards, and these results represent an essential step toward a complete neural understanding of human social behaviors.

In other words, those of us who made a conscious decision some time ago that we would not be, as the hip hop heads say, “paper chasers”, may instead just be chasers of a different kind: the currency of good reputation. Yea, even Solomon in all his wisdom suggests the NIPS report understates the reality: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” (Proverbs 22:1). For this wise king, the pay off of a good reputation is not equal to money as the scientists suggest, it is better. Whoa. News flash: As far as this neurological stimulus package goes, we, in all of our do-gooding, may just be as excessive, greedy, and self-serving as the Wall Street titans and capitalist fat cats we are quick to condemn. At the end of the day, it may be, that we all, in a Pavlovian sense, seek the sensation of reward – and whether money or praise, its all about us/our feelings.

What, then, might be the implications of such a phenomenon for the non-profit and social change sector that we live, work and eh….strive, in? On one hand, it confirms what we already know: that for a job actually well done, where a million dollar bonus or even a competitive salary isn’t on the way, we ought to lavish folk with what author and psychologist Gary Chapman calls, “words of affirmation” – verbal appreciation, simple verbal compliments (Chapman, Five Love Languages)

But not so fast! Hold back on the flowery words, my friends, for just a sec!

Consider the words of Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards

“[The key factor] in a positive judgment is not that it is positive, but that it is a judgment.

Kohn makes the case that praise actually lowers confidence and heightens pressure to live up to the compliment in order to receive future compliments – setting in motion a “rat race”, or the “praise maze” if you will (explaining some folks’ negative reaction to verbal affirmation).

Not sure what all this means for outcomes, evaluation methods, organizational culture, American pragmatism, parenting or how to break the power of negative words/images over groups of people who have been systematically targeted with such, but I’m sure some of you have ideas. What of it? Anyone others who may be cash poor and reputation rich want to weigh in? (No worries if you want to say something, well, nice….;-)

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  • I would offer that one key to delivering “effective” praise is to own/claim my judgments about you or the situation. It is also nice when the judgment accompanies some quantitative data about the situation that helped me form my judgment in the first place. So not only do I think this about you or the situation, but my thinking has been informed by clear data, behavior, output etc. that got me to this place. Then my judgments are more transparent and “logical”. Now this may cause this person to work harder to seek my praise, but at least they will be working on specific outcomes vs. just trying to be “better”.

    As far as offering praise as a facilitative leadership habit, I would hazard to guess that the net gain in human fulfillment is worth the risk of people over investing in praise-seeking behavior.

    Onto the praise: I really liked this post (my judgment) because the author is offering more than one perspective about a topic and asking me, the reader, to weigh in with my ideas one way or the other (data). My judgment is that the author is trying to stimulate meaningful dialogue about a topic that might on the surface seem “easy” or a “no-brainer” by the Facilitative Leader Community, but the topic is more nuanced and requires refinement (my judgment).

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    At the risk of feeding the praise habit… Love this post and the comment so far. I agree that of all the risks leaders face, the risks of excessive praise is probably the leasts of our troubles. I think that the source of the praise matters. In the social sector, the praise of the people we serve or whose capacity we build is a more important indicator than the praise of our donor/funders. Important to keep that in mind, especially when these two sources are at odds about the value of our work.

    Also, I think there’s a difference between praise for what we do and affirmation of who we are. It’s just important to make sure whether we are the givers or receivers of praise, that we we don’t confuse or conflate the two.

  • @Johnathan Thank you! And thanks especially for underscoring the importance of grounding our praise reports in data. Last week I received an urgent request from a coaching client of mine to help her sort through a piece of constructive feedback she had received. It so happened that there was a well known body of research on that very same issue that was raised about her. Part of my coaching conversation included referencing this larger body of data so that she could evaluate (judge) herself within that context, as well as in the instant case. Your post helped me recognize data’s importance for both our words of praise, AND our words of constructive criticism. Its just less sloppy a way to help someone improve and judge for themselves how they might integrate our verbal offering. Plus, in the professional setting, being concrete in our judgments is just good practice. As a former pastor of mine paraphrased the “ask and ye shall receive” saying: specificity is the basis for cooperation. If you tell me exactly what you want/like, you make it easier for me to co-operate according to those wants/likes.
    @Cynthia –Thank you! And, I wholeheartedly agree. All praise is not equaly, and it is more honorable to be found on the liberal side of giving it, than on the the stingy side. Its something I need to be more conscientious about, for the net impact far outweighs the cost of sharing a kind (and factually supported) word or two or three.

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