When Praise Falls Short

Who doesn’t like a pat on the back or some acknowledgement for a job well done?  I certainly do. But gratuitous praise just doesn’t cut it. In fact, unwarranted praise can sometimes backfire.

The Globe and Mail Life section ran an interesting article earlier this week on this topic. According to a study by Niro Sivanathan, praising people inappropriately can result in something called “Escalation of commitment’. That’s when someone increases their commitment to an idea or decision — even if it’s a bad idea or poor decision. Sivanathan says people who have low self esteem might to stick to their decisions even if they are the wrong ones to avoid owning up to perceived failure or being wrong. Praising someone to make them feel better in light of an error or bad decision might deepen their commitment to ‘look good’ and stay the course.  Conversely those with higher self esteem are much more apt to admit when they are wrong.

So what are the implications for leaders who must give feedback to their people – both for positive performance as well as for performance gaps?

Acknowledgement is increasingly becoming an important engagement driver for retaining talent and promoting high performance. Acknowledgement helps develop confidence, improve self esteem and self trust which is important to grow into one’s potential. People want to feel good about who they are and what they are doing. But as this study reinforces, gratituitous or inauthentic praise is not the way to go.

Here are some tips to consider when giving acknowledgement:

1) Be authentic. Never fake an acknowledgement. It will ring untrue and won’t serve the purpose and it could also reinforce unacceptable behaviour.

2) Be specific about the behaviour that is to be acknowledged — i.e. “You did great work on that proposal – You came up with some very innovative solutions”.

3) Include an acknowledgement of who they were being in their actions to further build their self trust. E.g. “You were courageous to take such a bold stand in that meeting.”  Notice how much deeper that is than simply acknowledging their actions (i.e. “you spoke up in the meeting”). They can leverage that feedback and sense of being courageous to other situations.

4) For tough feedback (i.e. poor performance), focus your comments specifically on their actions and behaviours vs. their character. E.g. “Your behaviour of missing deadlines is unacceptable,” is better than  “your inability to meet deadlines…”. Notice the distinction. Do not generalize bad behaviour to a permanent character trait (the word “inability” is a character assault and is closing the door to possibility for change).

5) Balance the tough feedback with appropriate positive feedback. It can be demoralizing when feedback is all negative – so balancing it is key.  Try to find something positive to acknowledge the person for — but make sure it’s authentic and it doesn’t overpower the message you need to deliver. Sometimes in efforts to include a positive acknowledgement the other critical message gets lost.

6) If you can’t find anything within the behaviour or performance to acknowledge look to who the they were being in the process to cull something positive. E.g.  “While we need to ramp up the quality of this particular assignment – I do want you to know that I recognize how hard you worked on this and the commitment you demonstrated. …etc.”  (if that is indeed the case)

So there you have it — a few thoughts to share. As always, I welcome feedback of all kinds (especially acknowledgements:) (kidding) on how to create a TGIM worklife!

Eileen

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