Po Bronson’s latest book, NutureShock, raised questions about the value of praise for children. We need to praise children for effort, he says, not for talent. In other words, “You’re very smart” encourages children to rely on their gifts. When faced with a task requiring effort, they retreat: “If it doesn’t come easily, it’s impossible.”
Bronson says the rules are different for adults. Workers, he says, respond to praise.
Really? I rather doubt this myself. Maybe it’s because I came of professional age during the Women’s Movement. Back then employers widely believed that women didn’t need money. We wanted praise, like a little pat on the head. “You’re doing a great job” was code for, “Yes, you’re better than many of your colleagues but we aren’t going to reward you.”
Today I get tons of messages from ezine readers and class participants who say, “Great course” or “I love your ezine.” I love their messages…but I wince when someone writes, “Thanks for doing what you do.” I wonder if they realize I’m “doing what I do” for marketing, not love.
I know a few people who always seem to be looking for a way to give me a compliment. One even complimented my hair on a zoom call. My hair on that day bore a close resemblance to a Phyllis Diller fright wig. I couldn’t help wondering: was this a sign of condescension?
In general, the higher you rise in an organization, and the more you get respected professionally, the less you receive praise. Instead you start to get meaningful rewards. Praise can be a way of communicating, “We don’t take you seriously, so here’s a nice pat on the head.”
I also believe that praise has to be reviewed in the context of the organization’s culture. In some organizations, praise is suspect. The US military is a good example. A female Army officer I met (in a nail salon, of all places) said, “I never hear anything good. In fact, even the best officers get yelled at. It’s just the culture.”
On sports teams and dance companies, the best performers get the most criticism from their coaches. Everybody knows this. In his book The Same River Twice, author John Walters tells us that superstar Diana Taurasi received more criticism from legendary coach Geno Auriemma than any other player. Her teammates admired her because she never got upset; at the end of practice she’d wish him a pleasant evening. In many corporate and professional cultures, the ability to “take it on the chin” gets similar admiration. And those who take criticism graciously often get rewarded more than their colleagues who get a lot of happy talk and pats on the back.
What do you think?