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Praise – friend or foe?

Our need to feel valued is basic to our psychological health. So why do we cringe away from praise. “Embarrassing” is the word most often used to describe our feelings. It’s almost as though praise is a threat. Why?

Sometimes it’s because it’s used to sugar the pill. “It’s good that you… but …” The word that stands out is “but.” It’s not really praise at all, but a gateway to criticism.

Gushing, undiluted praise gets rejected as well. In a group, the person being praised may look like the accused. They lower their head, look away, shuffle their feet, and, if they say anything, deny it.

Praise can be used as a controlling agent, and people are quick to pick this up. Somebody who doesn’t like a particular job may praise another team member for their extraordinary ability in that area. If that person feels pushed into doing it, they may resent the praise.

It might be used as a way of changing the other person when they do not want to change. One example is when someone overhauls the system for working, then praises people to the skies for working in the new way. Yet the consensus is that the old system was easier and worked better. They don’t want to be praised for working in a way they dislike – they want to work in a way they do like. It’s different if they’re involved in the overhaul, and have suggested some of the changes themselves. If they’ve simply been told what to do, and they don’t like it, praise might be adding insult to injury.

Sometimes, praise comes across as an assumption of higher status. The subtext might be read as “I have the right to decide what you ought and ought not to do.”
Another danger is that the person doesn’t feel worthy of the praise. Then they may feel pressurised into doing a job beyond their capabilities. This brings fear of failure into play, the opposite effect that is expected from praise. Giving undue praise might create unfair pressure.

The secret is in being genuine about it. When people feel valued, they feel good, and want to continue in the same way. The vital variable is not whether it is directly put into words. It’s about whether the feeling has been communicated in a valid way. This could be words. Indeed, it should sometimes be words. It’s a mistake to assume that people must know they are valued, simply because they are. But words will not do instead of genuine value. This comes from the cultural climate, where people have opportunities, access to resources, support and consideration, and recognition for what they do. Praise is good, but it has to real.

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