Last week I wrote about the business case for being nice. I stand by the article and the cited research flaunting the benefits of leadership based in trust, warmth, and mutual cooperation; however, with the passing of legendary comedian Don Rickles, I’d like to honor his memory by providing a counter argument—the business case for not being so nice. More specifically, why we should be more discerning when doling out praise.
In today’s culture, leaders are encouraged to instill confidence, build self-esteem, and offer regular praise so as to encourage employees to believe in themselves. This “feel good” behavior creates a nice environment, but “nice” is not synonymous with “engaging,” “productive,” or “dynamic.” In fact, research shows that praise may actually undermine success.
I always rib people, but nobody ever gives me a hard time. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re afraid of what I might say. There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.—Don Rickles
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people are praised for ‘doing their own thing,’ they lose interest in the activity once the praise stops. Where they may have once felt satisfaction with the intrinsically rewarding enjoyment of performing the activity, the praise replaced the intrinsic reward with a contingent, external incentive, thus reducing the appeal of the intrinsic reward. As a result, expecting praise can soon make that thing seem not worth doing if you are not receiving the praise.
In another study published in Educational Leadership, people praised for personal attributes (being smart, talented, etc) were more easily discouraged with complex tasks and they stopped making an effort much sooner than those praised for ‘working hard’. Also, when praised for effort, participants overwhelmingly chose the more challenging task, while those praised for intelligence chose the easy test.
And according to Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and professor of psychology at Cornell University, unpraised individuals show higher levels of confidence, while the overpraised are more likely to lie or exaggerate to make their performance sound better. Praise becomes addictive; once they get it, they need it and cannot function without it.
They always use the word ‘insult’ with me, but I don’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I did. I make fun of everybody and exaggerate all our insecurities.—Don Rickles
Before you are completely turned off from delivering praise (and decide to follow the Don Rickles’ style of ‘compliments’), the lesson here is not to withhold support or encouragement; what’s key is making sure the praise you deliver is accomplishing your intended purpose and being conveyed in the most impactful manner. A few ways you can maximize your praise include:
- Be selective with praise. A compliment is more meaningful when it is kept sacred. If you do it all the time, it has less potency and creates an atmosphere of dependency. As David “Father of Advertising” Ogilvy says, it should be just uncommon enough to make each instance a momentous occasion.
- Focus on what is within a person’s control. Don’t bother heaping compliments on characteristics that come natural; emphasis what they can consciously influence and control.
- Avoid applause for easy tasks. A study found that people praised for an achievement that comes easily believe either 1) the praiser is not smart enough to realize how easy the task is or 2) the praiser thinks the prasiee is not smart.
- Don’t over-praise for doing something they should be doing anyway. Recognize them for going above and beyond or finding a new way to complete a task, otherwise you are just reinforcing the minimum expectations of the job.
- Deliver razor-sharp praise. Ambiguous, broad statements like, “You are great,” are worthless. Compliments should be specific and describe a detailed account of what they did well.
Don Rickles, derisively nicknamed Mr. Warmth, was always quick with an insult. He could disarm the most caustic audience with the most politically correctless jab. The greatest praise he offered was a verbal barb… and people begged Rickles to make fun of them. Of course, context matters so we should not try to emulate his form of tribute. Instead, use praise to build people up, but, at the same time, don’t rely on it as your primary form of communication. Keep it pointed, make it meaningful, and (I cannot stress this enough) don’t think “What would Rickles say.”