In praise of recognition, but not praise itself: coaching reflections for leaders

praised-guyTake Away Line

Half-hearted praise does as much for self-esteem as casual criticism. If you want to build the confidence of your people, they need to feel recognised not praised. And that’s about how you engage with them. Whole-hearted and fully present engagement may sound ungainly as a phrase, but it’s the trick to build self-esteem in our teams.

I praise, you don’t praise

One of my coaching clients spoke about isolation in his role as the boss.

He works hard at recognising the achievements of his top people; he wants them to know when things have gone well; and he doesn’t want to be the guy who’s always leaning on his people when things aren’t right. Great stuff, and who can complain about that?

However, in quiet moments when he’s honest with himself, he’s not sure that he feels recognised for his work by his boss. We explore it: it has a history. He feels that this was the case with his parents too: ‘I felt I often didn’t hit the spot with them.’ Pause. ‘That’s why I make a real effort with my kids to praise them, when they’ve done something good.’ Again, great stuff and who can complain about that?

Is praise the same as recognition?

But I have an uneasy feeling. What is it? I know that it’s nice to feel recognised. But praise? Is that the same thing?

I think about a situation a number of years ago. In one particular moment in a therapeutic relationship, when I had been talking about struggling to figure out how to manage a behavioural question with one of my children, I recall, the therapist gently reminding me at the end to be sure to recognise them when they makes the change; don’t just complain when things aren’t right (was it reading, or clearing up, or… I no longer remember). It’s so important to recognise when things work out, to build on the positive.

The management textbooks all say this, don’t they? So, what’s the unease?

Room for Improvement

Stephen Grosz’s marvellous book, An Examined Life: How we Lose and Find Ourselves (Vintage, 2013) helps with this one, I think[1].

Grosz quotes studies that suggest that when we praise a child for being clever, the result isn’t typically a feel-good factor and continued high performance, but rather, perversely at first glance, a loss of self-esteem. Indeed, the reasoning goes, if I’ve been told that I’m brilliant, why continue to bother? I might as well just ease off.

Quoting the Dweck and Mueller study of 1998, he says that when a group of children are given a new task to do, after they’d received praise for a previous task, those who’d been praised for their effort showed much more resilience and innovation next time round compared with those who were praised for their intellect – ‘you’re so clever’. In fact, the children who were praised for their ‘smarts’ in the first round showed anxiety about future failure and that seemed to cause them to go for tried and tested approaches lest they do badly next time. So, praise for cleverness results, oddly but logically, in a loss of self-esteem.

When Mary Poppins took out her measuring tape to ‘get a measure’ of Jane and Michael Banks, her charges, in the Disney film version of the story, her own ‘height’ read: ‘practically perfect in every way’. Not perfect? Well, if perfect, then there’s no room for improvement, is there?

Down with thoughtless praise!

What Grosz tells us (and he doesn’t mention Mary Poppins at all, by the way) is that the commitment of the current generation of parents and managers to giving praise, often conflating it with recognition, is a reaction to what they, a previous generation, experienced themselves as children, when praise was not the thing. Indeed, the focus was often on the negative. Constant praise may temporarily lift self-esteem, but, Grosz argues, ‘it isn’t doing much for the child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing – doling out empty praise, the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.’ Both, he suggests, are in fact showing indifference.

And (not so poetically): up with thoughtful presence!

So, back to the ‘exam question’ of this article: how is confidence built, since that’s what my client is trying to do, both for himself as well as his team?

What makes the difference is presence. Grosz again: ‘being present builds a child’s confidence because it let’s the child know that she is worth thinking about.’

For my client, then, I wonder how we can support him in his skill to be attentive to his people’s work, to understand what they do and how they’ve done it and, above all, to ‘bear witness’ to them, something that’s far more important than praise.

And I reflect too on how I show up to my client, how present my presence with him is.

Debating Points

  1. How praiseworthy is your approach to recognition?
  2. How do we embed a culture of intelligent engagement, rather than faint praise?

[1] Page 18

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About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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