The Pitfalls of Praise; Originally Published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

The original publication can be accessed here.

Most nonprofit and social impact leaders share a belief in the positive potential of human beings. We seek to alleviate suffering and lift up the good in people. We advocate, champion, and care for the needs of others. So why don’t more of our workplaces reflect these core values and beliefs?

While our purpose in the sector is to empower others, we aren’t immune to limiting beliefs that permeate our educational and economic systems, namely “there isn’t room at the top for all of us.” This is an example of “scarcity thinking,” and without even realizing it, many managers in the social impact sector are steeped in it.

Scarcity thinking is an attitude based on a false assumption of limited and finite resources. Lynne Twist elaborates in her book, The Soul of Money: “When we believe there is not enough, that resources are scarce, then we accept that some will have what they need and some will not. We rationalize that someone is destined to end up with the short end of the stick.” Managers often assume praise will support a positive working environment and help their employees feel good about themselves, or at the very least, open up to criticism. But in fact, praise can perpetuate scarcity thinking. This is because praise, in its essence, is a comparison. “You’re amazing!” (Someone else is not.) “You are outstanding!” (Better than someone else.) Praise indicates you are rising and, thankfully, not being left with the short end of the stick. (But someone else will.)

We all need positive feedback, but not all positive feedback works equally well. One of my clients came to me for coaching, because his supervisor told him he needed to get better at offering praise. He admitted, “I hate feeling the pressure to positively reinforce my staff all the time. I feel like a phony. I am just not that good at praise.”

I suggested that perhaps praise wasn’t the solution after all. In The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander share an alternative to scarcity thinking: “What if you participate joyfully with projects and goals, not because your life depends on meeting the mark, but because you will be better able to connect with people all around you?” They call this “a generative world.” Twist calls it “a world of abundance.” And in this generative, abundant reality—where true connection and contribution, rather than achievement and rewards, drives us—acknowledgement, as opposed to praise, is a fundamental management tool.

An alternative to praise: acknowledgement

Acknowledgement is a way of communicating that we “see” someone—without comparing, evaluating, or judging. We share out loud that we saw someone set a goal and meet it, or that we noticed someone exhibit courage or take a risk. It is simply saying, “I see you.” Being seen is a basic human need. In the best-selling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explains, “Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” When people feel “seen” in the workplace, performance improves. Research conducted by psychologist Dan Ariely and his colleagues Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec found that simply recognizing someone’s work resulted in significantly more perseverance.

I was first introduced to the skill of acknowledgement as a leadership coach in training. I watched my clients’ motivation improve when I acknowledged (rather than assessed) their character and their commitment. Now I recommend that managers use acknowledgement as well.

To better understand the difference between praise and acknowledgment, it’s useful to examine three big pitfalls of praise:

1. Praise fosters dependency.

A lot of the research on the problems with praise comes from the field of parenting and early childhood education. Based on observations in my coaching practice, I believe our early experiences as children affect how we express ourselves at work. I have observed that managers’ approaches often reflect what they learned in childhood from observing parents and teachers. Likewise, high performers at work are often working to get rewards that they were trained to seek as children. The problem is that to break through entrenched social and economic problems, we need to transcend the drive for rewards, and start thinking and acting much more creatively.

Family coach and researcher Vicki Hoefle writes, “Praise trains children to depend on constant feedback regarding what a ‘great job’ they are doing. This dependency shatters rather than builds a child’s self-esteem.”

The parent-child and teacher-student relationship are both traditionally hierarchical. Praise reinforces the child’s dependency on the parent or teacher for their sense of worth. Many work places, particularly in the social sector, are seeking to create more inclusive, flat, and collaborative structures. Just like a parent who wants to encourage their children to think for themselves, a manager who wants to encourage more ownership and responsibility in their staff should consider dropping praise from their vernacular.

2. Becoming accustomed to praise sets us up for self-criticism.

When praise is the primary message that we’ve done well, we feel like a failure if we don’t get enough of it. The most common reaction to perceived failure I’ve observed is not working harder, but self-criticism.

Leaders usually embrace the concept of the “inner critic” as a useful construct for transcending internally focused negativity. I ask all my new coaching clients, “How are you your own worst enemy?” Every single one has replied with some version of, “Let me count the ways.” Psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term “selective positive regard” to describe clients who considered themselves “worthy” only if they had behaved in certain ways—for example, getting good grades in school, getting accepted at a prestigious university, or securing a certain job. He strove to foster a sense of “unconditional positive regard” in his clients—a sense that regardless of their accomplishments, they were worthy of love and acceptance, which he felt was essential for human beings to develop their full potential.

Seeing ourselves with positive unconditional regard helps us see others in the same way. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, writes, “To view someone with unconditional positive regard isn’t to automatically forgive them their sins, but rather to refuse to dismiss their humanity because of them.” He goes on to say that embracing this notion on behalf of others is possible only if we embrace it for ourselves as well. This is the primary purpose of acknowledgement—to recognize our own and others’ humanity.

3. Praise overlooks opportunities for growth.

Praise tends to communicate a sense of, “Now you’re done. You’ve made it! End of story.” Conversely, acknowledgement is a foundation to work from, to soar to new heights. Praise expresses an end, acknowledgement a beginning.

The purpose of offering an acknowledgement is to inspire, not confirm an evaluation of competence. If every supervisor set out to inspire their staff in performance evaluations, rather than grade, performance evaluations would feel very different. The feedback would be less hierarchical, from the manager down, and more relational. This could look like: “Here are some observations, in what ways are they helpful for you?” In this way, the staff member takes ownership of the interpretation of the feedback, and what he or she wants to do with it, and the manager then supports follow through and accountability on a goal the staff member has set for themselves.

When people know they are seen, they relax. They ask questions. They reveal rather than protect. They share what they are struggling with, because they feel confident they aren’t going to be judged. When people start sharing rather than protecting, an opportunity for growth opens up.

When my clients experiment with acknowledging the work of their team members, and ask open-ended questions in performance reviews, they are often astounded by how quickly the levels of engagement improve.

Putting acknowledgement into practice

We all need positive feedback. But praise, while well intentioned, is not the most effective way to increase motivation or engagement at work. In fact, praise can set up a relationship of dependency, trigger our inner critics, and miss opportunities for growth. Conversely, acknowledgement helps us effectively share when we see some else’s effort, the values that guide them, and their character. Integrating acknowledgment into a managerial approach takes practice. Here are a few examples of how to turn praise into an acknowledgement:

PRAISE:  Great Job!  ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I want to acknowledge you for delivering the objective we set together on time and within budget this quarter.

PRAISE:  Outstanding! ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I’ve seen you step out of what’s comfortable for you and share more of your own ideas.

PRAISE:  I’ve never seen anyone do that as well as you! ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:  When you facilitated that meeting, you really took the time to ensure everyone’s voices were heard.

As leaders begin to bring acknowledgement into their managerial approach, they should consider the implications even beyond their team and organization. In using acknowledgment, leaders help change the conversation about what it means to be successful. They invite us to see the world through the lens of abundance and to recognize our shared humanity, .both of which reflect core values of the social impact sector.