How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Praise is the act of making positive statements about a person. Is it a powerful motivator? Certainly, but you do have to get it right.
Praise is often and rightly seen as a motivator, for example Blanchard and Johnson (1981) in their million-seller 'The One Minute Manager' recommend the 'one minute praising' as a critical motivation.
In its raw state, praise comes from a person who is pleasantly surprised as you achieve more than they had expected. Natural praise is not expected by the recipient and so also is a surprise.
Praise as a reward acts as a form of conditioning, and is often intended this way. In conditioning, you get more of what you reward, so praising a person for things you want the to do is a way of getting them to behave more like this.
The opposite of praise is criticism and can easily act to demotivate, particularly if it is destructive or targeted at the person rather than what they have done. Even well-intentioned constructive criticism of a person's work can have the wrong effect if the person is not able to accept the comment.
It is very easy to get praise wrong. Here are a few ways that praise can unexpectedly demotivate people.
Ability vs. effort
Mueller and Dweck (1998) gave 400 children a test and then told each that they had got 80% right. They then told half that this must be because they were intelligent and the other half it must be because they worked hard. They then offered them all a choice of an easy task or a hard task. 65% of those told they were clever chose the easy task, which was chosen by only 45% of those who were praised for effort.
In other words, those who had been praised for being clever subsequently avoided difficult tasks that might make them appear less intelligent. Interestingly also, more of those who had been praised for effort chose the harder task as they now saw hard work as gaining desirable praise.
Further tests found that those praised for effort worked harder whilst those praised for intelligence worked less. If you tell a person they already have the ability do so something, you are also telling them that they do not need to work.
Gunderson et al (2013) observed praise of children an 14, 26, 38 months and then at five years. They found that those praised early for effort ('process praise'), the more the five year olds saw intelligence and morality as malleable, with greater effort going to improving these.
We are a naturally suspicious species and when we are praised by someone, we do not automatically assume that the person means what they are saying. Tell a person they have done well and the first response might well be 'So what do you want?' The person can easily believe you are invoking the exchange principle, whereby you are giving praise in order to get something in return.
According to some research, by the age of 12 many children believe that praise from a teacher is a sign of encouragement rather than the teacher really is impressed.
Praise is often used in an attempt to build self-esteem, based on the premise that a person with higher self-esteem will work harder. There can be a problem in this when the praise used in a general, non-specific way that says 'you are wonderful' but how. Self-esteem is a general feeling that is hard to pin down to specifics and so praise can be a mis-matched method that backfires through the cynicism it creates when not used in a genuine way.
Praise can make a person dependent, becoming a 'praise junkie' where their self-esteem lasts only as long as the latest praise. They seek constant reassurance and may become more narcissistic. The self in self-esteem so decreases as they become dependent on the overt esteem of others. Image becomes everything as truth fades and they may even lie or cheat to sustain this facade.
There is often pressure on people to praise, from managers to teachers to parents. Books and training tell you that praise is essential and powerful, and that to not praise is to punish. So people praise simply because they think they should and because they see others praising and think they should do the same for want of being though a bad manager, teacher or parent.
In this way praise can easily become empty and meaningless, where the person praising does so because they think it is what is expected and the receiver does not believe the praise is genuine. Praise hence turns into a social ritual or a game that is played for ulterior motives.
Some people do not like being praised in front of others. This is typically because they feel that others may become jealous and that the relationship they have with them will suffer as a result. This damage is far worse than the accolade of praise and we typically try to moderate it with shows of modesty.
Public praise also puts you on a pedestal whereby you are hence expected to do no wrong from then on, making for a perception of a fragile future where you may anticipate failure and ridicule.
Another danger around praise is that if a person expects to be praised and they are not, then this can feel like punishment and act as a de-motivator. This can be seen when children show their work to their teachers (or adults to their bosses). If the work is ignored, then motivation goes down.
Whatever happens around us we are always trying to work out why it happened. If someone praises us, we want to know why they are doing so. Only if we do something well then we feel that praise is deserved and are motivated by it.
The bottom line is that praise is not a magic pill. If you praise anyone for anything, then the praise is meaningless. If you make them look good they may want to stay looking good and so become risk-averse.
For praise to be motivating it has to be sincere, specific and deserved.
To be sincere, you have to believe the praise that you are giving. For this, you need to make some kind of judgement that determines the person as good in some way, in comparison with some standard or mark. One way of doing this is noting that the person has improved in some way against their past self, doing things better or achieving some goal. Another way is comparing them with others, showing they are the best at something or better than another person. The former method is often the better approach as social comparison can also bring social anxieties with it.
You have significantly improved your understanding of mathematics over the year.
You are top of the class! Well done!!
A good way of showing sincerity is to make it personal, telling them how you feel about them.
I like the way you have used a balance of shades across the picture. It makes me feel intrigued.
People are generally good at detecting deceit and an insincere praising can do significant damage to a relationship as well as making the target feel that the praiser can find nothing about which to praise them. Trust is an important component of believing in apparent sincerity.
Specific praise talks about the act or achievement of the person being praised. The word 'you' may well feature in the praise.
You have passed all your finance exams now, making you fully qualified. Well done!
Praising can be about achieving a particular goal or can be about a specific act or activity.
Thanks for cutting the grass for me. It looks really nice now.
I like the way you are taking time to help your sister.
As praise seeks to encourage, then avoid praising for innate ability as this can result in the person doing less, so always praise for effort or achievement. Note that it is better to praise at the end of a piece of work rather than in the middle as this may create premature closure.
If you are not specific about what you are praising the person for, two things can happen. First, they may generalize and assume that they are being praised almost just for existing. Secondly, they may be confused and not feel praised for anything. The critical thing about either of these is that no particular way of behaving has been reinforced and so you will not get more of what you want and may get things that what you do not want.
Of process, cause and effect
Praising what people do is more effective at creating improvement than when praise is just about the result. This can be used to praise hard work even if there was little success, and which hence leads to increased effort towards a later success.
I can see how hard you worked, Well done! Even though it wasn't as successful this time, I'm sure if you keep working at it you'll get there.
Praise of the process can also be used to link effort to the result by highlighting cause and effect.
Congratulations! You've got your degree. All that hard work has paid off.
When a person is praised for something, they may well feel that they deserve the praise, in which case they feel affirmed and justified and that they have received the due reward for their actions.
Well done. We made our numbers this month and it was mostly down to your work with Andarex.
If the person does not feel that the praise is deserved, then they will check for sincerity of the speaker. If they do not feel the other person is sincere, then they will not accept that they deserve the praise.
If they do feel the person is sincere and they are not expecting praise then they will feel pleasantly surprised. This is a particularly important reason for sincerity of praise.
Blanchard, K. and Johnson, S. (1981) The One Minute Manager, London: HarperCollins.
Mueller, C.M. and Dweck, C.S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 , 33-52.
Gunderson E.A., Gripshover S.J., Romero C., Dweck C.S., Goldin-Meadow S. and Levine S.C. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development, 84 (5), 1526-41