In praise of praise

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
With the right kind of encouragement, we can all do better, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken
I've been led to believe, like many others, that praise for a job well done was one of the most affirming and motivating gestures we could offer someone.

Whether it is a child or an adult, at home, school, on the sports field or work then praise is the key to keeping people engaged. It turns out that is true ... and not so true!

Confused? Let's take a wander down the path of praise and I'll explain on the way.

Some people treat praise like a rare mineral and extract it for distribution on very odd occasions, only when all the stars and planets are in alignment! Lack of praise can leave children, team members, employees, partners etc feeling very unmotivated and disconsolate because nothing they do feels good enough. There's simply not enough feedback for them to feel valued, loved, appreciated or any number of other emotions. The good news is praise is a renewable resource, so we don't have to be Scrooge-like about dispensing it.

Shawn Achor (Harvard lecturer, speaker, happiness researcher) says ''Praise creates a virtuous cycle - the more you give, the more you enhance your own supply''. He points out that praise primes the brain for higher performance. We want to achieve more, improve, investigate, try harder. The more we praise, the more success we create. The more successes we create, the more there is to praise.

So praise is very important, but the type of praise delivered is even more important.

A common way to praise is by telling someone they ''were the best speaker/runner/whatever today''. Research tells us this is not the most helpful approach to take.

Firstly, it undermines all the other speakers/runners/whatevers and secondly it can set up a worrying thought pattern that has the recipient questioning if they'll be the best tomorrow, next week, or whenever. Can they maintain that ''best'' status? What happens if they are not the best? Now there is doubt in their mind and a little uncertainty.

It's also been shown that people who were told they were the best stopped trying to improve. Unintentionally we may just have limited someone and stopped them reaching their potential. On the other hand, we may have set them up for endless anxiety and disappointments as they seek to always be the best, at any cost to themselves or others.

Psychologist Carol Dweck carried out a series of experiments with children. In her experiments, some children were praised for their efforts in mastering a new challenge by being told ''You must have worked really hard''. Others were praised for their intelligence and ability, with ''You must be smart at this'', similar to the kind of thing many parents and caregivers say when their children do well: ''You're a natural maths whiz, Johnny.''

Yet these simple messages to children were found to have profoundly different consequences. Children who were praised for their efforts, even when they didn't ''get it'' at first, eventually performed better, tried harder and liked what they were learning more than the children praised for their natural abilities.They were also more likely to regard mistakes and criticism as useful information that helped them improve.

In contrast, children praised for their natural ability learned to care more about how competent they looked to others rather than caring about what they were actually learning. They became defensive if they didn't do well or if they made mistakes, and that set them up for a self-defeating cycle: If they don't do well they simply back off and lose interest in what they are learning or studying and stop trying to improve. A common response by the child was: ''I could do it if I wanted to, but I don't want to.''

When these children grow up, they will be the kind of adults who are afraid of making mistakes or taking responsibility because if they get it wrong that would be evidence that they are not naturally smart after all.

So how can we praise in a way that's more helpful? Achor states his ''inviolable law'' for praising is to ''never compliment someone at the expense of others''. The use of superlatives in praise (e.g. best, most, fastest, funniest, smartest etc) are to be avoided. Real praise is telling someone ''Your report was amazing'', ''I learned so much from your speech today'', ''Wow, I could see the effort and prep you put into that race, well done'' or ''I really liked the ...'', it's not telling them that their report or their speech or their result was better than another person's.

Keep the praise simple and specific. Highlighting a point you found interesting, helpful, that will change the way you do something or were impressed by etc is also more genuine than waving the ''you were the best'' wand at someone. True, it's not as simple as just throwing an off the cuff remark, but it is far more likely to help keep people, young and old, engaged, motivated and ultimately more resilient, in general.

So praise away, it's important as humans that we have that affirmation, just be thoughtful, simple and genuine in the way and about what you're praising.

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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Praise builds confidence, constant criticism wrecks it. There is another factor: NZ Pakeha stoicism. This is not all bad, in terms of self reliance, the school of Non Brag. Here, people excel because 'it's their job'. It is a way to get on with it, unconcerned, for the most part, with the judgement of others.





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