7 min read

Why 'Praise' Prevents Progress

o praise him
CC J. M. Richards

“My little girl gets A’s without even studying. She’s a genius.”

“Look at that athleticism. Mark, you know you could be the next <insert star athlete here>.”

“Wow, you did that so quickly and so fast on your own. You’re so smart Suzzy!”

I grew up with a generation where these are common things you heard, but do the ‘positive’ principles behind the notion of praise actually work?

You might be surprised by the answer…

The Background of Praise

I have friends who were on the back-end of praise for what seemed like ‘natural talent’ and I’m sure I was on the brunt end of that sometimes too.

I viewed myself as very athletic, and very intelligent growing up, but for years I was actually very afraid of failure.

Now I wonder, did too much praise eventually limit me?

Did my first big failure in life, actually lead to a far more fulfilling adventure?

When I was a kid this whole ‘participation‘ in action thing became prevalent.

You didn’t just get a ribbon for finishing first, second or third, like the good ol’ days; Suddenly the whole notion of competition became, “we need to reward everybody just for showing up.

Go to the science fair and finish last? Well at least you got a ‘participation ribbon...’

Go to a track meet and finish 8th? Well at least you got a fake-bronze-looking ‘participation medal…

Has to be good for our kids self-esteem right? Yet Gen Y seem to have higher levels of depression than other generations, even with all this praise?

And while we may have had the best intentions, and you think your kids may be the smartest, most athletic, or most talented person on earth, the reality is, that they are probably not. Statistically anyway.

Now Darren, don’t be such a naysayer! (or prick maybe?)

I’m not; Honestly, I love my three nieces, and four nephews; They’re smart, but they’re not genius’ anymore than I was, and surprisingly, they are still cool as shit to hang out with.

In short, they’re good kids, and I’m not sure we could really ever ask for more. So long as they come out of childhood as good people with the ability to fend for themselves in the real world, they’re parents have done a good job right?

I’m willing to bet, most everybody’s kids, spouse, brothers or sisters are roughly the same — though I’m also sure that there are notable exceptions some of the time…

Many people of similar age to me, and younger, have been living into this praise for quite sometime though.

As positively wonderful as that may seem, new research suggests that it’s actually built, at least one, possibly two generations of people with a fixed mindset.

It’s also being pointed to (in general), as being one of (potentially many...) the main causes for my generation’s sense-of-entitlement.

When Praise Goes Bad

We’ve become a conditioned culture of praise. Everybody has come to like a ‘rah, rah‘ rally-the-troops type of encouragement.

We tell friends, family and our kids stuff like, ‘just push through, you’re a natural! Or ‘you’re better than this, you can do it!

We have to be cheerleaders in other peoples corners right?

We think we’re doing good by pointing out the little things that people are doing well, and we also think we’re being supportive and positive.

Positivity is best!!

Yet it remains eclipsed by reality. Turns out there was something to the monologue Agent Smith had in The Matrix:

Where he explained that they tried to build a utopian matrix first, but it was a disaster, no one would accept the program. Turns out he’s not that far off, we probably do need some negative experiences to provide balance to our positive ones to make sense of our reality.

Researcher Gabriele Oettingen at NYU, has published a great deal of research on this contrasting approach.  In a nutshell, people who indulge their own need or want for positive only thoughts or outcomes about goal pursuit, unintentionally discourage themselves later when they eventually face adversity. We form more realistic viewpoints, and thus success, when we contrast our positive thoughts on a success with the potential problems we’ll face.

Yes it may seem that when we play cheerleader that we are helping someone push through a difficult time momentarily, or maybe we’re helping them get over the hump.

The truth appears to be that too much of this is also limiting people from truly growing and getting better; Ultimately creating a continual need for continual praise.

Praise essentially becomes the reward and it stifles people from achieving intrinsic motivation.

They come to rely on constantly being told how good they are, or how good they are doing, sometimes to the point of putting others down, merely so we can feel better about ourselves.

Instant gratification, but it doesn’t really help anybody get constructively better at something. It indirectly puts a limit on potential by implying that the talent is there and requires no additional effort to unlock further.

A Praise Example

What do you think the messages from above actually send a child, a trainee, employee, or paying client?

#1 – “My little girl gets A’s without even studying. She’s a genius.”

#2 – “Look at that athleticism. Mark, you know you could be the next <insert star athlete here>.”

#3 – “Wow, you did that so quickly and so fast on your own. You’re so smart Suzzy!”

They sound positive right? Good? Wholesome? Encouraging? Supportive?

Accurate? Patronizing? Fixed notions? Are we pushing our own agenda on them? What about potentially insincere too?

Here’s the message #1 is actually sending:

“I had better quit studying, or they won’t think I’m a genius”

#2: “I shouldn’t try any harder skills I can’t do well right now or they’ll see I’m no <insert start athlete here>.”

And #3: “If I don’t learn something really quickly on my own, I’m not so smart.”

Doesn’t really sound so appealing anymore right?

Our minds have a tendency to revert to this line of thinking when offered too much continual praise.

Praise offering continually and in the wrong way, can be detrimental to growth and development, or the mindset you’re trying to work towards.

Why? And What To Do Instead

Continual praise, in the way above creates a pseudo-addiction for praise (remember: the reward) and a psychological disruption from reality and the potential for failure.

Too much praise will eventually prevent us from seeking out challenges or learning from failures.

It also distinctly embeds itself in someone who is developing; Who will often eventually categorize themselves as possessing particular fixed abilities that they must show off to others, in order to maintain this perception to those around them, and to themselves.

Praise isn’t entirely bad though; Here is how to do it better:

  • Praise Sub-Skills but not ‘general ability,’ or ‘talent’
  • Don’t offer praise for ‘natural’ talent or ability (no matter how talented someone might be, they still have to work at being better)
  • Offer praise at random times, not EVERY time, a person displays a desirable sub-skill (randomness disrupts the external reward feedback loop)
  • Offer constructive criticism of sub-skills, a person may NOT perform so well on, at least as frequently as you offer praise (still at random though)
  • Follow up praise with questions about improvement (i.e. I really like how much effort you put into practicing this on your own time this week, but what else do you think you could do better in this upcoming week?)
  • Praise with the constructive axiom, “there is still room for growth though” (then feel free to point out areas for improvement)
  • Don’t praise for the sake of praise (thinking you’re doing some positive good by praising)

Meaning don’t praise for ‘natural’ talent, praise for growth and developing skills or chunks of skills.

i.e. pieces of a movement/skill, nutritional habit, or new understanding of a small but meaningful mindset approach

When someone has demonstrated a noticeable improvement in a skill, offer praise, but follow up with constructive ways you think they could get even better.

i.e. wow, glad to see you’re eating more vegetables, now I wonder if you could take it up a notch and get to 3 servings a day instead of two? Think you’re ready?

Encourage learning from failures, encourage seeking mentorship and coaching.

i.e. now, I know you didn’t quite get into the gym 4 times this week, like we talked about last week; So what could we do to make sure you hit that target this week? Is there any social support or a friend you could lean on for getting that last training session in next week? 

You Try

What would you do in the following example?

A good friend of yours is on their way to a public speaking competition with you.

They are the perfect fit for the event; They have a naturally booming voice; They have a great understanding and command of the English Language; They have a commanding presence, demeanor and are energetic on stage; They’re speeches come across as if they’re winging it and everything seems to naturally float off the tip of their tongue.

They actually love public speaking, but this is their first competition. They were supremely confident they would win something, and were set upon the grand-prize of $1000 and an opportunity to speak professionally at an upcoming gala event.

They were first up in the competition.

The speech started well, they grabbed the attention of the room, but they soon forgot some of their lines. They found themselves looking down, getting lost in the text by the second minute of the speech. Then their timing was off, first too slow, then too fast to keep it under the time limit. They managed to complete the speech and did well for their first time overall but not enough to win the competition.

What would you do after this event?

  1. Tell them you thought they were the best.
  2. Tell them they got robbed, and a prize was rightfully theirs.
  3. Reassure them that the activity isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things.
  4. Tell them they have the natural ability and will surely win next time.
  5. Tell them that they just didn’t deserve to win this time around and that there were some solid areas for improvement.

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