Praise – you’ve likely been doing it wrong all this time!

Eduardo Briceño, co-founder and CEO of Mindset Works, argues HR professionals have been doing praise wrong.

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Sep 11, 2023

Trigger warning alert: This article has the distinct potential to surprise/shock you!

If you’re wondering why, let us explain!

According to Eduardo Briceño – co-founder and CEO of Mindset Works, and author of upcoming book The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action – there’s a very good chance you’ve been doing a major part of your job (the bit about motivating staff and engaging them), completely wrong.

Yep, you heard right. Not just a bit wrong, completely wrong.

Still want to read on? You should!

The problem with praise

Briceño’s big problem is how organizations (and CHROs) do [and conceptualize] ‘praise’ – because he argues everything CHROs might have been schooled about it in terms of its power to create engagement, followership, and autonomy from staff could seriously be missing the point. Worse still, he adds, this old-style school of thought could be creating new (far worse) problems down the line.

“Praise is something we all intuitively need,” he says, speaking exclusively to TLNT. “It’s an evolutionary instinct because as humans we need each other for survival, and we want others to appreciate and value us, and hold us in high regard.”

Not surprisingly, he suggests, this need to recognition is why a stacks of research has pushed giving regular praise as being a vital piece of solving the engagement puzzle.

The Japanese National Institute for Psychological Sciences – for instance – has investigated the neurological impact of praise, discovering that being paid a compliment activates the same part of our brain as receiving cash.

According to the US Department of Labor, the number-one reason people quit their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated,” and lack of praise – HR commentators have long determined – is a part of this appreciation deficit.

And there’s more. Venerable groups – such as Gallup – suggest that individuals who receive regular recognition and praise display higher productivity; better engagement with colleagues, receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers; and are more likely to stay [organizations with recognition programs have 31% lower turnover than those without, according to Bersin by Deloitte].

So can all these groups/research bodies be wrong?

The answer, says Briceño is not necessarily that praise is wrong per-se – but it’s the way that CHROs/managers have been taught to deliver it.

 Growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets

“Reinforcing feedback is great,” he says, “but there are ways we do it that create problems.”

Briceño, who co-founded Mindset Works with renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says: “When we give people praise for being smart, it’s a label, and while they might initially feel good about it, what managers are doing is creating a fixed, rather than growth mindset amongst their people. [For clarity, those with fixed mindsets are deemed to believe intelligence, talent, and other qualities are innate and unchangeable; those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence and talents can be developed over time – though learning].

This point is important to understand, he argues, because fixed mindset individuals believe their success is down to being who they are, rather than the skills they have.

“It means that when fixed mindset people make mistakes, they make excuses for it,” he says. “It can also mean that they only do certain types of work – typically that which is in their comfort zone – to get further praise. So they do this rather than doing the stuff that stretches them, which could potentially threaten their sense of being great.”

It’s not that praise threatens to create companies full of narcissists, but it’s more that it fails to create critical thinking, he says.

Briceño argues: “The other thing about overt praise, is that it creates too much of the manager being the ultimate judge of what doing well is, and robs the individual of reflection.”

He adds: “It may also foster a negative reaction to critical feedback, when critical feedback is actually essential. Lastly another risk with praise, is if it’s given when it’s not actually deserved, but done just to make someone feel good. If we’re not honest about praise, we risk not sharing the truth, and managers are robbing employees’ of what they really think about them.”

What’s the alternative?

So should CHROs simply dispense with praise entirely, and encourage managers to be ice-cool with their staff?

“It’s not about toning praise down, or getting rid of it completely, but shifting the focus,” he says. “The key is to shift from praising the person, to praising the process.”

By doing this Briceño says, managers are focusing on having coaching conversations with staff that lead to reflection and create a collaborative learning relationship rather than the manager being judge and jury.

Essentially, it’s a re-purposing of praise – based around praise for how capable a person is of learning rather than telling them how smart they actually are/may be.

HR has to set the scene

For those employees who may still want unconditional praise, the job of HR, says Briceño, becomes one of “setting the stage.”

He says: “HR needs to establish what the new mental mindset is, where staff understand that praise is around having more authentic conversations.”

He accepts this won’t be easy.

Culturally, for instance, it’s become far more the norm for organizations to praise risk-taking. It’s this behavior, he says that leaders appear to want more off from their staff – believing that it encourages innovation and creativity.

“Once again, the problem here is that managers are praising a behaviour, not a process,” he says. “What HR professionals and managers really need to be doing is praising people for being successful at what they’re attempting. It’s a subtle, but big difference.”

Will the reframing of praise work?

Anecdotally, there is evidence that suggests workers – particularly millennials – want (or should that read ‘need’ ),more praise in order to feel special.

For these people, the reframing of praise into a more muted version of appreciation could feel like a disappointment.

But Briceño is confident that even amongst this cadre of employee, the new formula for praise should work. “Yes these younger employees may want more praise, but what I really think they want is more information,” he says.

He adds: “They want information about how they can develop, and grow, and be better, and praising the process absolutely fits in with this. I get it that this can sometimes sound counter-intuitive, but at the same time they do also get it when it’s explained to them.”

So there you have it – praise is powerful, but only if thought about, and metered properly.

Perhaps you should examine how you praise you people, or encourage managers to praise their teams. You could be in for a shock,

Concludes Briceño: “Just remember this. Praise is not about following a formula. Doing so could feel inauthentic and out of touch with whatever is happening in the moment. It’s about developing and showing an authentic appreciation for how others are contributing, while collaborating to help one another continue to grow and further expand the impact.”

Latest research backs up Briceño

In case you need convincing, latest research appears to back up what Briceño says.

Quantum Workplace recently asked workers what their ‘most preferred’ and ‘least preferred’ forms of recognition were (see above).

It finds that employees generally don’t like praise when it’s about their day-to-day behaviours (just 12% like this); and that they’d much rather be recognised for their accomplishments (71%); their teamwork (43%) or value to the organization (44%).

Commenting on the data, Briceño says: “All of these responses are neutral in the growth mindset vs. fixed mindset spectrum, except “personal potential” which tends to be talked about and seen from a fixed mindset standpoint (as if potential is fixed because the talent of the person is fixed).”

He adds: “Generally the three most preferred items are great things to recognize in people, especially if we also include why we appreciate those things, including what effect those things have on us, our team, and our organization (so that we’re sharing what we’re thinking and feeling, which can be of value to the recipient of the recognition).”

He continues: “When it comes to “personal accomplishments outside of work,” people want to be helpful to their colleagues, so perhaps when they’re praised for things they do outside of work it might make them feel that people can’t find anything to recognize that’s useful to them?”

He adds: “Regarding ‘day to day behaviors’, if we’re praising people as judges of what they’re doing and telling them what’s good and bad, without telling them how their behavior is impacting us and why it’s valuable or not, it could come across as off-putting.”