When we are young, reinforcing what we do well is considered basic, and all parents try to do this with their children. But as we grow older, we enter a society and companies where praise is sometimes viewed with a certain distance and suspicion. Why have we created this unhealthy link between praise and insincerity?
“What does he want from me, who praises me so much? Surely he wants something. We seem to have created a divorce between two words: praise and sincerity. If I tell you ” you’re useless” I am sincere, but if I tell you that you have done very well, you look at me with a suspicious face. Looked at this way, how can we turn the tables? A universal truth (or almost universal, there are always tastes for everything), is that we like to be praised. Another universal truth is that we like sincerity more than hypocrisy. Another empirical finding is that praise creates in the person who receives it the feeling that everything can be better. It makes them believe in themselves, it makes them feel optimistic. But what about companies, can it be used in the same way?
- Praise as work that boosts productivity
I would like to focus on some studies that have shown strong results, finding that praise makes workers happier and more productive. What a novelty! We already knew this. The problem is that we link it with hypocrisy. As a result of this organisational finding, some companies advise managers to tell workers how good they are. Imagine a case where after praising everyone left and right, we send a certain group of workers a cold e-mail, telling them that we are firing them. How does this tie in with the previous praise? Is this the way to fire those we value? Even if downsizing is justified, someone who is truly valued surely deserves to be treated differently. This employee and those who remain, after this experience, will take praise differently. In fact, promoting short-term business prescriptions, such as wanting to make workers happy and produce more by giving them praise, just because, not because they deserve it, is bound up in hypocrisy. And it reinforces the idea that when people say nice things to me it is because they want something from me.
More important than discussing the merits of praise “yes” or praise “no”, it would be good to enter into a long-term productivity debate: praise how and praise when. The fact that good words proliferate regardless of whether they are given or not, exacerbates the problem that those who say them are generally seen as hypocrites. And it takes us away from the real well-being that comes from receiving praise. It only brings us little joy in the short term, but if, when the time comes, the facts show us that it was all false, we will become sarcastic and distrustful of those good words we so desperately needed.
- Praise does not equal “losing authority”.
When someone is given a position of responsibility for the first time and in case they have people under them, the question arises as to how they can get people to take them seriously and involve them in the project. Some choose to think that they are very bona fide, and therefore that you will have to show an artificial and tough stance towards your subordinates. Others choose to be the opposite, to let the worker do whatever he wants and to be a “good-natured” head. What both options hide is a lack of experience, a lack of acceptance and maturity of how we are and how we handle the fact of commanding and being commanded. Leading teams of people requires personal discipline and having deepened and wanting to continue deepening one’s self-knowledge and empathy towards others. And this implies knowing how to value the quality of your team and when to recognise good work.
To achieve a good climate and motivated workers, companies need to promote praise, but for non-instrumental reasons. Especially now, when many people who have a job are afraid of losing it, and can lose it, even if they don’t deserve it. Behind the praise, above and below, there should be sincerity and authenticity. And how is that done? By linking this praise to concrete, verifiable things. And not contradict it with facts that mistreat workers. And complement it with other facts that support it.
Being human means needing to receive good news from those around us, about our qualities and results, and to notice that these people really believe in us. That they do not merely want to instrumentalise us, selected to make us just another tool as a means to achieve their objectives. We would all gain and learn from an attitude that is closer to our human nature, which is so necessary to encourage in the era of social networks.