The Perils of Praise

I’ve always thought that the process of motivating others was one of the trickiest and most difficult to master in the management arena; too much praise and you become less believable, too little praise and you’re impossible to please, uneven and praise and you play favorites. This recently became a topic of conversation with a leader that I admire very much which sparked a very long ponder on all of the nuances – So let’s take a look at each of these potential pitfalls in turn.

Too much praise?! –  Absolutely, and too much can come in a couple of different forms; I once had a boss who expressed that everything I did was just the most amazing thing ever, it simultaneously left me feeling that he wasn’t really paying attention to what I did and that he wasn’t really being honest, that all of the praise was just a knee jerk reaction.  If you have someone that, no matter the size or the scope of the task you’re completing for them, goes completely overboard with their admiration, it often leaves you puzzled over what’s really important to them.  I’ve come over time to believe that you should simply balance this with gratitude to encouraging behaviors that you want to continue and commending all activity that goes beyond the normal scope of duties.

What about two little praise?  I’m sure most of us have encountered that one boss or customer that seemed impossible to get any positive feedback from.  I have one such customer who in the six or seven years I’ve worked for him has only gone beyond a simple thank you once or twice.  The problem that I find with this is that psychologically it puts you in a position of not really wanting to try hard to do your best or to go beyond what is requested because it doesn’t appear to be appreciated.  And without that feeling of appreciation for your efforts many people are really just not motivated to do stellar work when faced with people like this. I mean honestly, if you receive kudos from one customer and not the other who would you choose to focus your efforts on?! Exactly.

Praise within teams is the trickiest of them all, for a couple of reasons. People have a natural tendency to focus on the new when providing feedback; you want new people to feel accepted and recognized but in the course of this you forget that within team projects everyone has an important part to play, background or center stage, and could end up building resentments. I believe it’s always a good practice to praise the team as a team, rewarding them for working together recognizes their efforts as a whole. If you choose to recognize individual effort then you must recognize the individual effort of every single member of the team. I once had a project that I worked on where eight out of ten of the project members were given an award for the resulting product. The two that were not, were excluded because they were contractors and therefore seen as has not part of the organization regardless of the scope of their contribution.  That as a team member my relatively minor involvement in the project’s success was viewed as more important than the contractors who honestly did most of the work was almost embarrassing.  A few of us actually banded together and relabeled our awards for those contractors.

I’d like to leave you with a few things to consider the next time you’re in the position to praise someone’s work; say thank you ALWAYS, if you are really grateful for this person’s effort tell them why along with the praise – it makes it more personal, understand if this was a solo vs. a group effort to ensure you are praising the right people and most importantly let the praise match the effort. You’ll be appreciated more for it.


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