I am addicted to praise. The condition is neither attractive nor mature nor productive. Yet I crave praise and, if I don''''t get it, I go into a decline. If I do get it, I hold it up to the light to assess its quality and, if it passes muster, I experience a brief “praise rush”. But then I want – I need – more.
Because my own appetite is insatiable, I assume that praise is the answer to every managerial problem. Especially at this point in the economic cycle, when no one can afford to reward people with more money, to reward them with generous handouts of “what a star” would seem a no-brainer.
Alas, it is not as simple as that. Last week, a friend rang me to complain that she was feeling grim and demotivated. The previous day, her manager had called her into his office and attempted to drop a love bomb on her but it had gone off in her face and left her scarred. He had first congratulated her on the part of her job that is the easiest to perform and then warmly praised her diligence. She said bitterly to me that this was as bad as being praised for punctuality.
Praise is hellishly difficult to get right: good praise is even more of an art form than good criticism, and bad praise is worse than none at all. Even good praise loses its oomph if is there is too much of it. As with all addictive substances, there is a level for safe use, after which it gets dangerous. Two units of alcohol a day are deemed safe, two units of praise are far too many. If one gets praised every day, then one quickly stops experiencing any rush; yet any reduction in the dosage leaves one demotivated and wretched.
Studies in the US show that too much praise is harmful: children who were congratulated every time they did anything were less successful than those who weren''''t. Praise must be a rarity or else the value is lost.
One of the UK''''s most effective praisers is Sir Alan Sugar, a man most famous for the nasty way he tells people that they are a complete waste of space. Last week, I watched him bark gruffly “well done” at some of the hopefuls on the UK version of The Apprentice TV series. Their faces broke into rapturous smiles – betraying the sort of intense praise rush that I spend my working life longing for.
The correct praise dosage is gender dependent, as it is with alcohol. Men tend to take all praise at face value and so are sustained by less. Women reject half the praise as being insincere or misdirected or offensive and so need more to get by on.
It is not just the quantity of the praise but the quality that is hard to get right. There are three pieces of advice commonly given to managers to make their praise more effective but all are terrible. The first says that praise must be public. This is downright irresponsible. While it is never certain that praise will make the “praisee” feel any better, it is always certain that public praise will inflict heavy collateral damage on everyone else who hears it.
Second, praise must be specific. Again, this is catastrophically poor advice as the detail chosen by the praiser may not be the thing the praisee wishes to be commended for. A friend who worked at the BBC remembers getting a herogram from the then director general, John Birt, that said she was a “brilliant administrator”. She found this devastating. He should have said “you''''re brilliant” – and left it at that.
Finally, the praiser is usually told to smile. This is also a bad idea. The point of good praise is that it must look deadly serious in order to seem sincere. If it comes from some grinning fool, one knows to disregard it altogether.
As well as making praise private, broad and serious, it helps if the praiser can slag off someone else at the same time. A colleague chillingly confides that the nicest thing his mother ever said to him was that he was brighter than his sister.
Good praise can be ruined in any number of ways. A surprised tone of voice wrecks it while any hint of negativity, no matter how tiny, wipes out all positive impact. Because praise is a mind-altering substance, we are not rational about it. When a reader recently said: “I usually enjoy your columns” my praise-addled mind did not find it complimentary. I took it to mean: I often think you are rubbish.
The wisest oracle on praise was dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse, whose approach can be easily adapted for use with humans. She argued that dogs do not mind which words you use: it is the tone of voice that counts. So if you say “rhubarb, rhubarb” in a drippingly soppy way, the dog will be pleased.
This is why e-mail is no good for praise, as it has no tone. It is also why most managers – who tend to be bad at modulating their tone of voice – struggle so hard to produce a “praise rush” no matter how they try.
There is an alternative. A handwritten note always hits the spot nicely. The fact that someone has gone to the trouble to hunt down an envelope and a stamp supplies the right tone of voice. So long as the words in the letter are not actively insulting, the recipient will be delighted. They will also have a copy of the letter to keep so, even if the next “praise event” is a long time coming, they can reread to top up their praise levels as needed.
By Lucy Kellaway 2009-06-01