The Problem with Praise

Photo: Totem Pole in British Columbia
Photo © Copyright B. Kim Barnes

B. Kim Barnes

Reprinted from LinkedIn, Sept. 1, 2022

I have often run an exercise in workshops in which the participants create an emblem that represents what they stand for – what they want the world to know about them. They then meet in small groups and without saying anything about it, show that emblem to the others, in turn. Each person, when they are the focus of the group, shows the emblem but offer no other information at first. The others are to learn as much as possible about the focus person, using the information on the emblem, but may not agree, disagree, or offer feedback. They are specifically asked not to offer either negative or positive evaluation, but they may ask questions and the focus person may answer them.

During the debrief that followed, I was at first surprised by, but later began to expect the following comments: “It was very difficult not to be positive about what the other person was showing.”

“I wanted to offer positive feedback and felt that the other would be disappointed if I didn’t say something nice.”

“If I couldn’t say what I liked, I didn’t really know how to respond.”

“I think I learned a lot about the other person because it wasn’t about how I felt.”

Many of us developed the idea in learning how to be a better manager or leader that praise was a powerful tool in getting others to feel good about themselves and to do more of the things that we considered praiseworthy.

It’s certainly true that most of us enjoy praise if we perceive it to be genuine. It’s also true that negative feedback is something we dislike, even dread, especially from those we respect. So what kind of response was typical from people who were the focus of the group?

“It was strange at first, because I couldn’t tell what the others thought about my image, but the questions made me think and I sometimes developed the ideas more.”

“I felt free to talk about what the images meant because I knew they wouldn’t be judged – at least out loud.”

“It was unusual, I felt some pressure to go deeper rather than just wait for their reaction.”

“I was at a loss at first without feedback, but I liked that they were curious, and I learned something myself by answering their questions.”

In the discussions that followed this exercise, we would explore the downside of quick responses of agreement or praise.

Some of the points that typically came up were:

  • If a leader praises or agrees with one person’s idea too quickly it might keep others from expressing a different idea or opinion, shutting down the ideation process and leading to “groupthink.”
  • If an idea is praised too early, it might stop the person or group from building on, improving, or developing it further.
  • Praise makes sense for a good effort or excellent performance, but ideas need to spend time in a process of curious or even skeptical questioning if they are to become stronger.
  • Questions or invitations such as, ”Tell me more about that.” “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What does that symbolize for you?” lead the focus person to think more deeply and develop a richer sense of the meaning of their own ideas.

I would often suggest that participants who had access to young children try an experiment the next time the child showed them a drawing:

Don’t say, “What a wonderful horse!” (It might be a dog or giraffe.)

Don’t say, “You are such a good artist!” Once in school, they know who is really good – it might be them or perhaps not. Your status as an art critic may be in jeopardy

Instead, say something like: “That’s interesting. Tell me what’s happening in your picture.” “What do you think will happen next?” “What would you do if you were in the picture?”

With both children and adults, leading with curiosity rather than judgement keeps the focus where it belongs, at least for a time, and creates an environment where creativity and the diversity of ideas can flourish.

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