Saturday, April 21, 2007

Praise is getting harder

The Wall Street Journal yesterday did an article on younger workers' need for praise. (You'll need an online subscription to read the article).

The article claims that popular self-esteem-building parenting and coaching techniques have created a generation for whom a lack of continuous feedback feels like rebuke. The abundance of praise may have led to the formation of a cadre of narcissists. Moreover, in the race to provide such praise, praise words get inflated - "nice" and "smart" are no longer complements. What you think may be praise might not have the desired effect.

The article mentions communication that many of us are probably more familiar with - if nobody is yelling at you, that's a proxy for communication of satisfaction with your performance. That strategy will fail with many 20-somethings and you will be burdened with filling a vacancy. On the other hand, inflated praise may seem disingenuous, even to the receiver. Bottom line, praise is getting harder.

The article talks about how to give feedback in such cases; a lot of younger people may completely ignore candid feedback, because they are used to being told they can do anything if they believe they can. Steve Smolinsky advocated using language like "It's not as good as you can do", a compromise with some lack of directness.

All of this language is counter to a lot of how I have been coached and treated in my career. I'm certainly not advocating being mean, but if you are disappointed, the discussion has to happen; you may not understand all the factors, and very likely your employee doesn't. Clouding this discussion with praise may fail to get the point across. With practice, you can give someone feedback and show that you want them to be successful at the same time, without confusing it with ego-boosting messages. What this article says though, is that may not be enough. Perhaps you can use another technique they mention for relationships - give five times as much positive as negative feedback (but do it at different times).

Bottom line, this probably isn't new - you should already be thinking about how different people react to different forms of praise and feedback. What is new, to me at least, is thinking about it as a assumption based on age; it will require observation to see if the theory matches your reality.

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