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Is Recognition Just A Matter of Heaping on the Praise?

No. In fact, praise has very little to do with true recognition of good performance. Have you ever noticed how people react to praise? Not very graciously, most of the time.

Praise a house or a garden and its owner hastens to point out its defects; praise an employee for a project and he downplays his role; praise a child and he digs in his toes. The typical responses to praise are such rejoinders as: ‘‘Oh, it was nothing. It was just luck. You’re just saying that. Well, I do the best I can. I like yours, too.’’

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Bosses are constantly told that the way to motivate the troops is to tell ’em what a great job they’re doing. Give ’em some recognition, the management experts urge, a little positive feedback. But check the reaction of those on the receiving end of this blarney and ask yourself if it’s really a motivator.

Why do people react to praise with such defensiveness? In part it may be modesty, but mostly the reason is that in praise there is threat, there’s something we must defend against. What rankles us about praise is not that we’re being evaluated positively, but that we’re being evaluated at all. When a person praises us, it is clear that he is sitting in judgment. We become uneasy when we realize that someone is giving us a grade.

Praise serves to maintain status differences. It reminds one person that another is capable of sitting in judgment. When the work of a highstatus person is praised by a low-status person, it’s usually taken as presumptuous or insulting. Imagine a layman telling Picasso, ‘‘You know, you’re really a very good painter . . . ’’

We also sugarcoat bad news or criticism with praise and turn it into psychological candy. We use the sandwich technique. Start with a bit of praise (‘‘You’re doing a great job, Fosdick, a great job . . .’’). Then let him have it (’’But there are a few things we need to talk about . . .’’). Finally, having given him both barrels, wrap it up with just a little more plastic applause (‘‘Keep up the good work, Fosdick’’). No wonder Fosdick winces when he’s told he’s doing well.

But people are always fishing for compliments and complaining about being underappreciated by the boss. We live in a constant state of stroke-deprivation. We remember for years the kind things others have said. How can we use praise well?

The trick is to describe and report, not to evaluate and judge. We’re uncomfortable being praised because someone is judging us, but we’re entirely at ease when we’re told of the positive reaction our accomplishment produces in another. It’s the difference between telling Mr. Picasso that he’s a pretty good painter, and explaining that seeing a simple daisy he painted made us smell a whole bouquet of flowers.

Start by making your comments direct and specific. Tell the individual exactly what it is that he or she has done that you like. Then say why you like it. Instead of judging the worth or value of the other person, talk about the impact of what it is they’ve done. ‘‘I really appreciate your staying late last night, Mary. It allowed me to finish up my report well in advance of the deadline.’’ ‘‘That last client presentation was great, Fred. Everyone followed closely and you provoked a lot of important questions.’’

Finally—and here’s the real secret to making verbal recognition work for you—immediately ask a question such as, ‘‘Did you have to make special arrangements?’’ or ‘‘How did you learn to be so relaxed in front of a group?’’

The flaw in praise is often thought to be a lack of sincerity. But sincerity has little to do with it. State the compliment for the specific thing the individual has done, justify it, ask a question, and the sincerity will take care of itself.