Praise is not the answer, unity is
When we talk about ways to make people feel valued, we are quick to suggest praise as a solution. As one of my mentors said, “For every slap in the face, give 'em two pats on the back.” However, the more I dig into it, the more I am convinced that making people feel valued has little to do with praise and reproach. The road to psychological safety and positive culture is not paved with praise. If you’re banking on praise to satisfy your insecurities, I’m afraid you’re only compounding the issue.
The goal is not to demonize praise, though I intend to discard the glitter. I loathe glitter. Praise can be great. Global praise can create positive culture, and contingent, specific, credible, and task-related praise from people we respect can influence behavior and learning (Ferguson, 2013). Nonetheless, praise is about giving and receiving approval. Here lies the root of the issue. What is the motivation? Is it to do a good job for the sake of a job well done? Is it doing the right thing because acting with integrity gives us satisfaction? Or is it gaining the approval of others? Is satisfaction then dependent on the acceptance of others?
Alfred Adler, the founder of Adlerian Psychology, believed that rewards and punishments teach us to please or fear others, rather than promoting the intrinsic motivation of doing good. He thought children would demand rewards for favorable behavior and would learn to punish others for bad behavior in return. When it came to praise specifically––a kind of reward––he said those who seek it out are revealing their insecurity, their need for others’ approval, their fear of inferiority, their desire for superiority. Those who seek praise and get none see it as a sign of failure, even if all they have done is dandy. Just as more and more schools are rethinking retributive disciplinary systems (i.e., bad behavior = proportionate punishment), all of us should think critically about the role praise plays in our lives. Does it supplement our behavior or determine it?
While many people have come to expect praise, it isn’t what we work for––and if it is, we’re on an endless satisfaction hunt. Following the Great Resignation of 2021, Pew Research Center asked people why they quit their jobs. Low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work were the top reasons why Americans decided enough was enough (2022). It’s less about approval and more about feeling respected, that the work you do is valued, and that you are contributing to the growth of the common good. There are better ways to achieve these ends than shout outs and compliments.
I’ve never been a numbers guy, so I won’t tackle pay. For the other top motivators––advancement and respect––I’d like to take a detour to 1966. John McPhee wrote The Headmaster, profiling Frank L. Boyden, the legendary head of Deerfield Academy from 1902-1968. A boy from the class of 1966 said, “I frankly don’t understand why any faculty members are at Deerfield,” to which McPhee offered two reasons. One was an admiration for what Boyden did for the school, that he always stood and fought for the absolute best. The second was that the teachers had freedom. People appreciated Boyden not imposing on their professional approach (p. 66). In essence, his staff stuck with him because they felt they were a part of something great, and they were able to grow into their potential as contributing members. They weren’t making whatever Deerfield teachers make today, but they felt of value nonetheless.
And I’ll offer a third motivator. Boyden said, “The thing I have tried to build is a unity of feeling. The thing I hope is always retained here is the school’s flexibility. We’ve just kept abreast of the times. We haven’t gone wild. There’s a sense of permanence in the school" (p. 109). I underlined that when I first read it––and put some gratuitous brackets in the margin for further emphasis. Dysfunctional teams and dissatisfied people lack a unity of feeling. Boyden was wise to see that unity and flexibility are not enemies. Close-minded individuals who avoid changes they do not like, reject ideas that conflict with their own, and prefer to maintain a status quo that has worked for them historically––i.e., inflexible people––make unity nearly impossible. Boyden’s seemingly contradictory words explain how he sustained his school’s identity while giving it the freedom to grow. Evolutionarily speaking, living beings adapt to maintain balance in a changing environment. Balance endures.
Look, I haven’t even mentioned praise for over two paragraphs now. Praise isn’t the point. It won’t solve your culture problems and make everyone feel hunky-dory. Think of it in terms of dopamine. Praise might give someone a little pleasure, but it will be followed by the inevitable pain of wanting more. The more we crave praise, the less we enjoy the process of whatever earns us applause, and the lower we feel when we don’t get our fix.
The fix is in the process, in the unity of feeling, in the joyful pursuit of a common goal for a common good. That’s where fulfilling and rewarding work begins and ends. In unity, people belong, feeling valued and respected. You can sprinkle on all the praise in the world, but if you don’t have that sense of union, the soup will be sour.