The Praise Report

April 24, 2009 Leave a comment

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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  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for your thoughts. Em and I talk a lot about this in raising our daughter. Empty praise is something we want to avoid. We certainly do want to let her know when she is engaged in right action, but also help her to appreciate not just the results of such, but the process of her actions in the world, to be able to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. Do what you love and love what you do. “Trapped by Results” may be a book worth writing (if it hasn’t already) for parenting and social change work. What did our enthusiastic workshop participant say the other day – “It’s all about relationships and process!” Not all, but these step children to results need more of our attention.

  • Linda says:

    Wow Melinda! Great and provocative words (praise!!!!)

    It sparked in me a memory of something Ryumon taught me at one time a number of years ago – about Stroke Theory from TA. Stroke theory talks about the ways we can give positive and negative feedback (strokes) to people for who they are (being) and for what they do (doing). As part of this, there’s some evidence that girls in the US are given a lot of positive being strokes (you’re pretty, nice, sweet, etc.) while boys are given a lot of positive doing strokes (great home run, good job on your homework, etc.). WAY oversimplified, but interesting because according to the theory, if we’re given mostly one kind of positive stroke, we long for the other kind. And what has that done to our gendered society – both for good and for not so good. What does that add to the mix about what it is people are seeking?

    On the other hand, negative strokes should only be negative doing strokes, that negative being strokes are a foundation of oppression. (Though often people can interpret negative doing strokes as negative being strokes – the way they’re given really matters!)

    As far as what you mention about Kohn, I wonder if it matters what KIND of praise – whether it feels authentic and true or not. More questions….

  • Gibran says:

    Wow, good look at the dilemma. I know a guy working on “acknowledgement,” which I think could be seen as different from praise. Maybe part of the answer is found in this distinction, maybe our role is to acknowledge the other where it is that they are in the process, to push when needed, to pull when needed and to bare witness most of the time.

    When you were starting to make the economic analysis, I was inspired to think of how we are the “means of pruduction,” when it comes to praise and defining what is worthy of praise. This has liberatory implications.

  • Santiago says:

    Very interesting post Melinda…helps take a look at praise from a new, unanticipated, perspective.

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