Photos by Getty Images
It’s the sort of thing that can make or break your day, isn’t it? You’ve spent hours working on a successful project, only to have your boss – yes, that same boss who’s always happy to dole out negative feedback – give it nothing more than a cursory nod of approval.
Now, we already know that the majority of leaders “vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement,” as per Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman’s analysis in the Harvard Business Review. And this is in spite of the fact that a 2015 Gallup survey found that 67% of employees whose managers communicated their strengths were fully engaged in their work, as compared to 31% of employees whose managers only communicated their weaknesses.
One more study, too, found that high-performing teams receive nearly six times more positive feedback than less effective teams – evidence that positive reinforcement really does help the bottom line.
So why does praise continually prove to be such a source of motivation to so many? How can we wean ourselves off our need for external validation?
And, perhaps most importantly of all, how can we let our managers know that the odd compliment – be it congratulating us on a well-delivered presentation or even a shout-out in a team meeting – would make a huge difference to our moods, output, and productivity?
Keen to learn more, I reached out to psychologist, author, and founder of The Village, Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, to get her perspective on the matter.
Why do we crave praise?
“For many people, praise can be a reflection of their self-worth,” Dr Ben-Ari tells me. “It serves as a reminder that they are worthy, that they belong, that they are loved, appreciated or admired. They might see it as a reflection of who are they or the qualities that they have – that they are smart or esteemed, for example.
“Praise is typically craved by those who are more dependent on outside influences to feel good about themselves. And many think praise can make them feel good. But the more you rely on outside sources, the less authentic – and the more anxious – you can become.”
“Encouragement is about someone’s strengths regardless of the result of an event.”
Dr Ben-Ari continues: “At work, it feels good to know that we are performing in line with what is expected of us. But it might also satisfy an underlying competition with team members too.
“This desire for praise is something that can develop in childhood. Parents can inadvertently train children to rely on outside sources of motivation – for example, if the parent says to the child ‘I am so proud of you’, or ‘I am so happy you did well’, it implies that the child’s success is their success. This fails to teach a child to rely on their inner motivation.
“If a child wins a team sport, a parent who says ‘Wonderful! How does it make you feel’ is likely to raise a child who seeks motivation internally. They will feel loved and worthy of love wherever they are, as they know it is within.
“That is of course not to say that parents can’t tell their children that they are proud of them, but it’s important to strike a balance and teach children to express their own feelings.”
What’s the difference between praise and encouragement?
“Encouragement is about someone’s strengths regardless of the result of an event,” explains Dr Ben-Ari. “It is not about evaluating the end result, but about appreciating or noticing the behaviour. So rather than saying ‘I am proud you achieved X’, try to say ‘I saw your dedication and hours of investment on that project. Good for you!’
“In other words, encouragement praises behaviour, not personality traits or results.”
How does praise – and the lack of praise – impact our mood?
“This really depends on the person. Those who depend on others for their self-esteem will feel good as a result of praise and so it affects their mood accordingly, at least until the next time.
“However, those who are less reliant on others to feel good about themselves are less likely to be affected. They might be upset about a specific situation, but they are able to reflect and understand how to bounce back.
How can we let employers know (politely) that praise is important to us?
“Positioning praise as ‘feedback’ could be a good way to let your employer know that it’s important to you. Explain to your manager/boss that you would love to receive feedback on your work, to help you meet expectations, understand when you are on the right track and grow with the role. They will most likely appreciate your openness to develop your skills and ability.
“When you do receive praise, let your employer know that you appreciate it and that it means a lot to you. This way they will know that it’s important for you to hear that.
“However, it is important to remember that every person has a different approach to management - and praise might not necessarily be something that your boss/manager regularly offers.”
How can we get by without a steady supply of praise and support?
“Learn to develop your own sense of self-worth so that you don’t depend on others to feel good about yourself,” advises Dr Ben-Ari.
“Reflect on your belief systems about praise. Where and how you developed them, how it was managed in your family as a child, and the hidden messages you received. It might be helpful to do this with a friend or a therapist. Reflect on times where you didn’t manage your parents’ expectations – what was their reaction? How did you feel about it? And what did you do to protect yourself from these feelings?”
She continues: “There are hidden messages that you learned in these events. Use them to start to question your belief systems, your learned values about it and work on replacing them with more of a growth and resilience mindset. Your beliefs are the root for your inner voice.
“For example, you could go from: ‘My boss doesn’t like my work. They didn’t appreciate it and I think they are not happy – I must be bad at my job’ to ‘I did my best and I think it is good. If my boss needs me to do it differently, they will tell me and I can grow from that feedback. I am able to adjust and learn and this is my strength.’
“If you did something that feels great, acknowledge it within. Tell yourself that YOU feel proud in yourself. Give yourself the feedback you always wanted to get from others. Be the source for it to yourself.”