Damning with Fulsome Praise

Damning with Fulsome Praise

A cartoon dwarf

Many folks write about how Positive Reinforcement is a Good Thing. Some folks use the grander (yet, smellier?) term “Appreciative Performance Remediation“.

Yet Rosenberg said

“In Nonviolent Communication, we consider praise and complimentsviolent form of communication.

I’m so much with Rosenberg on this one. Here’s a longer extract, with Rosenberg explaining the issue, from the Nonviolent Communication perspective, in some more depth:

“In NVC, we consider praise and compliments a violent form of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another. What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, managers in industry have been trained in courses and by other people to use praise and compliments as rewards. In a family, we are taught that if you praise and compliment children daily, they are more likely to do what you want. Teachers do the same in school to get children to work more. And managers in industry are trained to do this, showing them how to use praise and compliments as rewards. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude. So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate. To celebrate the life that has been enriched by what the other person has contributed to you. Then, once conscious to make clear three things in this celebration; first, what the person did that enriched your life, not a generality, like ‘your so kind, beautiful, or wonderful’ but what concretely did they do for you. Second, how do you feel inside about their action? And third, what need of yours was fulfilled inside you by their contribution?

“I had just finished saying this to a group of teachers, telling them about the dangers of using praise and complements as rewards. I showed them how to do it this other way and I must not have done a good job of explaining this because afterward, a woman came up and said, ‘You were brilliant.’ I said, ‘That is no help. I have been called a lot of names in my life some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am. I don’t think anybody does but I can see by the look in your eyes you want to express gratitude.’ She said, ‘yes’ and I said, ‘I want to receive it [the gratitude] but telling me what I am doesn’t help.’ She said, ‘What do you want to hear?’ ‘What did I say in the workshop that made life more wonderful for you?’ She said, ‘You are so intelligent.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t help.’ She thought for a moment and then opened her notebook and said, ‘Here these two things that you said really made a difference.’ I said, ‘How do you feel?’ She said, ‘Hopeful and relieved.’ I said, ‘It would help me if I knew what needs of your were met.’ She said, ‘I have this 18 year old son and when we fight, it is horrible. It can go on for days. I have been needing some concrete direction and these two things have made such a difference for me.’

“When I give this example, people can see the difference between praise and gratitude and how different in value both are. In the case of celebration, you can trust it is being done with no manipulation so that you will keep doing it or say something nice about them. Instead, it is really coming from the heart. It is a sincere celebration of the exchange between two people.”

Application to Organisations

This same perspective – that praise and compliments are a violent form of communication – applies at least as much to groups as it does to individuals. And, ultimately, to organisations in toto.

Are you motivated to praise or compliment your teams? Where did you learn that? Do you have any evidence for its efficacy? How likely is it that praise is actually causing more harm than good? How would you know?

Oh yes, praise or compliments may be better than harsh words, criticism, and punishment. But how likely is it that there might be a better way?

Personally, I can imagine some folks subconsciously resenting the attempt at manipulation implicit in receiving praise or compliments.

Might it not be better to take the path of Nonviolent Communication?:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

Further Reading

Speak Peace in a World of Conflict ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” ~ Alfie Kohn
The Four-Part NVC Process
Praise vs Encouragement, Gratitude ~ Duen Hsi Yen

2 comments
  1. Thanks Bob. I’m so in line with this. Giving and seeking praise causes so much dysfunction in organizations, and drives (mostly) very wrong behavior. As always though, there are two parties responsible. Don’t give praise, for sure, but what about receiving it? Rosenberg talks about his own response to being told “You were brilliant”. This aligns with the perspective Don Miguel Ruiz takes in The 4 Agreements—the perspective of the receiver:
    “Agreement 3—Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
    In this agreement Ruiz is not only talking about the negative responses we get from others, but just as much, perhaps more, about the “positive” ones. Neither criticism nor compliments have anything to do with the receiver, and all to do with the giver.

    Very much enjoying your posts these days.

  2. Sebs said:

    There is a fine, very fine, line between manipulation and appraisal. I don’t find it to bad to reflect to others how I feel and add why it’s that way. But I am a hardcore subscriber to Rosenberg’s works.
    However, when it comes to retrospectives I try to get teams to look Into the “what went well” or “Glad” Column in order to create an improvement out of that data. These things tend to stick longer and need less reminders over time .. just my experience.

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