By Dan Brown, PCC. With good intentions, but without knowing it, you could be subtly undermining the confidence of those you manage, even your top performers. How? By praising them. Yes, really. That praise can do as much damage as criticism at first may come as a surprise, even a paradox, given how we take its supposed benefits for granted. However, in coaching sessions, client after client of mine offers evidence that substantiates research that praise isn’t so effective a performance-management tool after all.   

“I’m realizing how reliant my self-perception, confidence, and overall happiness in my job can be on positive reinforcement from those I report to,” one of my clients tells me. She’s a mid-30’s, up-and-comer just selected to participate in her company’s leadership program for “high-potentials” (another problematic label, but I’ll leave that for another day). 

When asked what she wants to accomplish in coaching, she responds from the gut. “I want to talk about how to free myself from needing praise and instead see my own progress clearly.”

Further questioning revealed that my client grew up hearing indiscriminate approval: “You’re beautiful, you’re smart, you can do anything.” Well meant, but this lavished, parental praise sowed the seeds for the troubling imposter syndrome now a presenting itself years later.

The prominent developmental psychologist Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset,” conducted several experiments with hundreds of children to investigate the effects of hearing “you’re so smart,” “you’re so talented,” “you’re such a natural” and other such applause. “We had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen,” Dweck writes. “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.” And, I would add, the painful effects last into adulthood, for men and women alike, though they are definitely reversible!

It calls for a radical change in how managers and leaders seek to inspire others to greater heights of accomplishment. It involves a conscious shift away from traditional notions of positive/negative feedback toward the enlightened practice of encouragement. 

Think about your own experience. After some reflection, one begins to see praise and criticism as two sides of the same conditional coin. Both set up managers as authority figures who dispense verbal rewards or punishments only for superior or poor performance. This instills a fear of mistakes and a win-at-any-cost attitude among team members, who invariably start nervously to doubt themselves. Encouragement (from the French root, to hearten) is unconditional, hence freely given when a direct report is struggling or succeeding. Now the recast manager plays the roles of coach and, seeing possibilities, visionary. Mistakes are learning opportunities; team members, valued for who they are, try again, rather than give up on the assumption it should’ve come easy. 

Encouragement, in my experience of having coached hundreds of leaders from CEO to line supervisor, unfortunately remains a paramount skill in short supply. With dedication, however, it is learnable. It starts with sharpening your powers of observation, so that rather than delivering vague judgments — “great job” or “you missed the mark” — team members hear specifically what they did and the result it had. Rather than unsure of what behavior is worth repeating, they understand their contribution and impact, good, bad or neutral. How skilled are you in doing this? Is your self- and social- awareness keen enough that you avoid conditioning superiority in some team members, inferiority in others — and insecurity all round — through praise and criticism? The desirable alternative is for team members to feel affirmed in their self-worth, realizing their strengths and areas in need of further development.      

It’s better for all of us to acknowledge praise and criticism for what they are: means of controlling others. By contrast, encouragement is for imparting information. The difference in response among those you lead is between feeling demotivated due to dependence on your approval and self-confident determination; between a tendency to blame others and being resilient in the face of setbacks. 

Leaders I’ve coached to practice encouragement soon notice they are sought out for their guidance and objective observations. Their direct reports know they will get low-key, evenly delivered words containing no personal value judgments. None of my clients, however, started out as “natural” encouragers. They worked and worked at it, moving with intention out of the false choice of effusive approval on the one hand, or distancing displeasure on the other.

In Dr. Carol Dweck’s framework, encouragement is a move out of a “fixed mindset” into a learning posture. In my own framework as a coach, it’s also a move from leader as all-knowing hero to leader as facilitator. Where are you in that transition?   

To learn more about the power of encouragement and developing other critical leadership skills, schedule a consultation with Dan.