On Praise

Photo by Sincerely Media / Unsplash
"Changing the way workers are treated may boost productivity more than changing they way they are paid" – Alfie Kohn

Last week we looked at Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards, specifically looking at rewards and how they can motivate and demotivate. Today we're looking more specifically at praise and feedback and how generic praise can do more harm than good. We often see empty and generic praise most acutely when a child does something and adults around them spontaneously say "Good job". This praise, unrelated to the actual thing that the child did, how hard they worked, or the challenges they may have overcome, can do more harm than good.

How then can we make sure praise is more targeted and helpful. We can start by praising people for what they have actually done, not just for being there doing whatever it is they normally do. We can make the praise as specific as possible, rather than "Good job" for an important initiative at work, you can say "Your work has really helped us to better understand...[specific outcomes of the work]". This kind of praise, tied to the activity, helps connect the feedback and praise to the actual work that was done. Saying "Good job!", or "Excellent work!" has no actionable quality and thus is much less impactful. In short, it gives no information beyond the signal of approval. Meaningful praise builds in an explanation of why the praise is warranted.

Additionally when praising, avoid comparisons between workers (or in family life, children). To motivate and encourage anyone, making comparisons between them and others discounts their own progress and compares it to another person. Incentive / merit-based pay systems in workplaces institutionalize these comparisons, in the long-term building jadedness among those who have the abilities to access the merit pay and those who do not. Similar to motivation, we're short-circuiting the person's own intrinsic motivations and interests in a type of work, contribution to the company, or learning activity with extrinsic motivation. Employee performance evaluations and incentive systems that compare the work of people to each other are likely to catastrophically erode the intrinsic motivation workers have.

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Thinking prompt
When you think about what you liked to do as a child, what you were intrinsically motivated to do, what was it?
As you moved into adulthood, was that intrinsic motivation eroded by extrinsic factors? Grades, pay etc.
What could you do to reconnect with your intrinsic motivations?
Can you think of a time in your own work where your intrinsic motivation was destroyed by extrinsic factors meant to motivate you?

It is better to praise the work that people do rather than them in the abstract. Talk about their work and what you noticed about it and not just them in the abstract. "Your time spent on making sure all the formulas in that spreadsheet were correct really helped the team", is more helpful than "You're our spreadsheet whiz kid!".

How can you manage for intrinsic motivations? The simple answer is to accept that people and their motivations are as varied as snowflakes. Working to understand your people, the work they do and the nature of how your business maps its work to opportunities around the capabilities of its people is a magical opportunity for many businesses. Especially if you're in a small organization, you're uniquely able to tune your systems and processes, and the jobs themselves, to be more attuned to individual interests, competencies, and capabilities. Ask yourself not how you motivate someone extrinsically, but how you might tap into intrinsic motivations by making the work more interesting to do.

Sometimes external motivators, those created by bosses, teachers, or marketers make us behave in strange ways. Whether it is the word count on an essay, or a reward threshold, read 10 books and you'll get a reward, external motivators can get us over the hump and activated, but they can also replace our internal motivations. Finding the right balance of activation, while not eroding or destroying the intrinsic motivations of people is a real challenge for modern organizations and management.

To work on the increasingly complex problems of modern society and business, we can't have brainless automatons executing a procedure dreamt up by a committee weeks, months, or years ago. We need to activate and engage every member of our organizations or businesses. This is both a challenging pivot and an incredible opportunity for your business or organization to build a highly effective organization that leverages the combined capabilities and intrinsic motivations of its assembled staff.

If you've enjoyed this article, are looking to build a learning organization, or otherwise grow the resilience and competency of your team, please reach out. I love to hear from you.

I help teams consider their collective capabilities, future visions, and strategies for building impact-driven organizations which can co-create a rich and resilient future. This work starts with understanding your people, how you work today, and what you aspire to.

Jonah Duckles

Jonah Duckles