Think back for a moment. Think back to a time in your career when you felt the sweet joy of being praised for a job well done. Who praised you? What did it feel like? When did it happen? Why did it happen? If you are like most people, it felt good and warm and satisfying. In some cases, it might have felt like one good day among a host of days when you felt unappreciated, unrewarded and skeptical that your career would ever turn into anything worthwhile.
Now that you have this image in mind, how do you think others feel when you praise them. If, like most human beings, they have a similar reaction, wouldn’t you like to be the cause of those same feelings in others? The sad truth, though, is that while we love to receive praise ourselves, most of us are absolutely lousy at giving it to others. Blame it on the American work or life ethic of rugged individualism, the harsh nature of work today, or simple inattention, but far too often we err on the side of criticism when a little praise might be just what we — and those around us — need.
We have all been there, of course. We have been on the receiving end of criticism about our actions, our work, our life. Was this criticism deserved? Almost certainly. Humans are not perfect beings. We all have our faults. We all make mistakes. We are not always the best people we can be. With such obvious faults, though, it also drives the question — “If we all have faults, why do we spend so much time focusing on them?” Since mistakes, complaints and missteps are the norm, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the exceptional, the good, the excellent? Shouldn’t we be focusing on those times when things go right and simply learning from those times when things go bad?
The trouble with most criticism is that the person being criticized already knows they have screwed up. In most cases, they are already punishing themselves much more than any external force could. I think the external criticism is much more for the person doing the criticizing than the person being criticized. A manager needs to be seen in authority and also needs to be seen as someone who recognizes when others have screwed up. Otherwise, they become culpable in the mistake themselves. Their criticism is a public warning to everyone else that “Hey, I saw this person screw up and I can catch you screwing up, too!”
Of course, this then begs the question of why didn’t they help prevent the screw up in the first place — if they were so aware of it. Criticism of this type is too little, too late and seeks to soothe the ego more than address the problem that occurred. Instead of focusing so much on what someone did wrong — after the problem has already occurred — how about we all look for and reinforce those times when people do something right? Doing so helps to prevent mistakes before they can occur and also reinforces good behaviors so you don’t have as many bad ones around to punish.
Make no mistake, there are times when all of us need to be criticized, warned and reprimanded. That is simply a state of the human condition. That said, there are also more times when we need to be praised, supported and have our good behaviors and actions reinforced. Too often in our career we assume that “no news is good news.” The truth is no new is just that — no news. We are left to try and figure out if we are doing well or doing badly on our own with little guidance either way. It is only when the criticism hammer comes crashing down that we figure out where and how we screwed up.
To be clear, I am not promoting some sort of Polly Ann-ish praisefest of anyone and everyone. As you already know, some people are not adapted to their work or, in some cases, life in the general society. Those people need to be watched and corrected clearly and often. Rather, I am suggesting that you look for those times when the majority of people deserve praise — and then offer it, truthfully, clearly and — may I use the word — lovingly. When someone makes your life a little easier, your work a little smoother, tell them so. I can guarantee you that the benefits you reap will be far greater than any that grow from criticism.
It is easy to know when you should praise someone, by the way. Put yourself in their position. Empathize with their life. Think of when and how you would like to be praised and apply that to others. What if it were you presenting a piece of work, a corporate presentation, a bit of writing, a new song to the world? How would you like people to praise you? Now, do that for others. See yourself through their eyes. See what they want and need from you — then offer it.
Praise for good behaviors and actions will always bring more rewards than criticism after the fact. One is positive and uplifting while the other is negative and — in some cases — demeaning. If you rely on the negative side often enough, you will reap what you sow. You will end up with a workforce, a classroom, a family that is constantly looking over their shoulder for the next attack, the next smackdown instead of modeling positive behaviors that you have reinforced over time.
Praise is a way of building the family, students, life and career that you deserve. You only have to look to your own needs and reactions to praise to realize this.