I have often heard a story about Bill Gates. It could be an outright lie, a falsehood, I am not sure. But it does make a point. The story goes like this; Bill Gates is famous for his abrupt manner and impatience. It was related that during people reviews or reviews of projects, he would often cut people off as they went through the ‘good’ of the project or how they had been successful in their role and say ‘Don’t tell me what you did right. Tell me what you did wrong, and how you learned from it’. His abrupt – bullying style is well known, so it does not seem like a stretch.
Personally, I have seen it time and time again. Big wins are often celebrated, but the little wins are forgotten, celebrating the journey toward success seems to never be a priority even though it is clearly correlated to success in adults and children (when done correctly). Of course, I have also been in work environments where the praise is unwarranted and the culture is one that ignores the negative, blind to the challenges ahead, which is equally as frustrating and damaging. A point that Steven DeMaio in his article ‘When being positive is positively meaningless’.
In the end, the above represent two ends of the spectrum. The Bill Gates ‘don’t praise’ mentality to the other end where praise is meaningless and dangerous. So it must be about balance. Providing critical feedback to help people learn, progress and be more successful while seeking opportunities to find people doing things right, making the effort. I like the advice in ‘The Art of Giving Praise’:
- Be truly specific
- Don’t confuse politeness with praise
- Praise with action, not just words.
- Don’t pad criticism with empty praise
And I would add, be cautious of praising skill versus effort. The article ‘How Not to Talk to Your Kids’ is a truly scary example of the dangers of the wrong kinds of praise (I have seen this one time and time again in kids):
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.