praise or criticism – which is more effective?

August 5, 2013

pink flower - Lauren JUL 2013Good Monday morning to you! It was a spectacular day here in NE Indiana yesterday!! I hope you have a great week ahead. I am excited as I get to travel to Nacogdoches, TX this Friday and spend some time with the leadership of Fredonia Hill Baptist Church.

In a recent LinkedIn article entitled “Praise or Criticism: Which is better?” the author, Charles Duhigg, contends that criticism is a much more powerful motivator that praise. Actually, it is not really criticism that is more powerful, it is the fear of failure or embarrassment that he says is powerful – “And yet, we also know that fear of failure is one of the greatest motivators – and that failure is only real when it is accompanied by consequences like getting dressed down in front of 433,999 of your peers.

Is that really true? Is criticism really that much more powerful than praise? Actually, it seems the question is, is fear the best motivator? Probably for the short-term – probably not for the long-term and especially not for retention of high quality talent. Who really wants to spend most of their time at work being “motivated” on a regular basis by the fear of criticism and/or failure?

Maybe the real issue lies in another statement he makes,”. . . we love to receive praise, but usually we’re not certain what message, precisely, we should take from it. On the other hand, when someone points out our flaws, we realize immediately that something needs to change.” Note the difference – praise tends to be general and nonspecific while criticism is specific and therefore actionable.

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck points out how we often tend to praise someone’s attributes instead of their behaviors which can result in unhealthy behaviors later. For example, your daughter comes home from school with an excellent grade on her test. We will often say things like “Great job, you are so smart!“. Sounds nice right? The problem is the child will then be concerned with “being smart” and then often later will actually avoid difficult situations where she could fail and thus prove she’s not smart. However, if you were to say something along the lines of “Well done! You were so diligent in studying and preparing for this test and you didn’t give up even when you first could not understand the concepts!” Now you are reinforcing a behavior – one that focuses on them being diligent and not giving up versus simply being smart. You are reinforcing behaviors that will serve them well in all areas of life.

The same holds true in the workplace. We will say things like “great job on that report!”. Well, what does that really mean to the person hearing that remark? For a short bit, they feel good, but how does it reinforce the behaviors you want in your organization? Maybe you say something more like, “Great job on that report, I especially appreciate your attention to detail and your thorough research as evidenced by the number of references you included. Those things give so much more credibility and reflect our core value of excellence.” Here you are reinforcing a specific set of behaviors that are important to your organization instead of just a vague pat on the back.

We need to be both Affirmed and Challenged. Both are important as we lead others and both are important for us as leaders. Incorrect behaviors need to be challenged and good behaviors need to be reinforced. The key is that the affirmation or challenge be specific so that people know what to do with it.

What do you think? What is more powerful? What is the place of praise and criticism in the workplace?

Blessings on your week!