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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Power of Praise

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Kerrying On

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“Call on me!” I quietly implored as I used my left arm to hold my right arm high above my desk. Miss McCloud, my first-grade teacher (and the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth) had just asked the class to identify the color of the flower in her hand. I waved my arm wildly because I was confident in my answer. To be honest, I saw myself as a bit of a color savant. Plus, I really wanted Miss McCloud to admire me for knowing the correct answer so I could bask in the glow of her approving smile. Did I mention she was the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth?

At that time in my academic career, I had been in school long enough to have figured out the three axioms of education: (1) questions have right and wrong answers and it’s good to give the right answer, (2) it’s even more satisfying to give the right answer after someone else has given the wrong answer, and (3) it’s pure bliss to give the right answer after everyone else has given the wrong answer. Then Miss McCloud really piled on the praise.

As the years passed, the axioms didn’t change much, but the nature of the questions did. By the time I was in college, the average query was far too complicated to be satisfied with a simple answer. I still raised my hand every chance I got in hopes of gaining attention, but rare was the day when others gave a flat-out wrong answer that I could easily correct in order to earn the professor’s special approval.

So I had to learn a new skill. I had to learn how to spot flaws in others’ arguments. Sure, my classmates would offer answers that were mostly correct (or at least correct in principle), but if I applied myself to the task, I could always find a flaw, point it out, and grab the spotlight.

When I moved on to grad school, I discovered that finding flaws in what others had to say wasn’t merely a rewarding hobby; it was academia’s prime directive. My classmates and I would sit in our Colosseum-shaped classrooms, listen to each other’s comments, eagerly spot a mistake, and then in gladiator fashion, swoop in and strike down the egregious logical lapse or factual faux pas. We were nit-picky, we were brutal, and we loved it.

Later, when I became a team leader, I used my growing talent for detecting mistakes by practicing what is known as “management-by-exception.” I wouldn’t say much to my direct reports when they were doing well—that would be disruptive. However, if they took a misstep, I’d speak up immediately so the problem wouldn’t escalate.

Raising children was no different. My eyes were drawn to mistakes far more often than they were to success. Nobody walks by two children playing quietly and praises them for playing quietly. It’s inconceivable. If kids are playing quietly, you don’t even see them, let alone praise them.

Once when I was working in Brazil, my “spot the error” routine was challenged. Dale Carnegie, in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggested that in order to be a decent human being, I ought to look feverishly for things done well and then offer up hearty approbation and lavish praise—not just once in a while, but all the time.

If this wasn’t radical enough, Carnegie challenged me to praise a total stranger, just to see what it was like. Of course, to follow his advice, I would have to spot something praiseworthy. And if anything should be clear by now it’s that I hadn’t been trained to see “things gone right.” For several days I looked for a praiseworthy accomplishment, but to no avail.

Then I finally struck gold. I was riding a bus through the streets of a small town near Rio de Janeiro. Inside my head Dale Carnegie was screaming, “Look for something good!” It was really annoying. Suddenly, the young man taking money for the bus fare caught my eye. He had a dreadful job. He sold bus tickets by winding his way through a crowded, speeding bus. People crabbed at him, the driver ridiculed him, chickens pecked him, and then there was the ghastly smell of a crowd of passengers who believed that bathing was for sissies. In spite of all this, the young man was the picture of professionalism.

I told him just that. I pointed out how well and quickly he made change. I mentioned that I admired his ability to keep his balance and remain polite and pleasant. And I meant it.

Bingo. I had done it. I had followed Carnegie’s admonition about approbation. Now what? First came a pause. The guy was thinking about what I had just said. Finally the young fellow smiled widely and gave me a big hug. Tears were running down his cheeks.

The bus employee introduced himself as Carlo Pereira. He explained that he had dropped out of school at age fifteen and worked as a ticket taker to help support his mother. I was the first person who had ever praised him, despite the fact that every single day for three years he had tried to do his best. Carlo then introduced me to everyone on the bus as his “American friend,” and from that day forward wouldn’t accept my money if I happened to board his vehicle.

Carlo’s devotion only grew. As I was walking down the street one day, he had the driver pull over and pick me up. Then Carlo told the driver to change routes so he could deliver me to the door of my next appointment—which, as you might guess, didn’t go down well with the other passengers. They were about to be transported blocks away from where they were originally hoping to go and were now threatening to cause Carlo bodily harm. Carlo didn’t care. I was the only customer he was concerned about. I was the only person who had ever complimented him.

Naturally, I was stunned by Carlo’s reaction to the heartfelt but simple praise I had expressed. But I later I made sense of Carlo’s response. I learned that in annual corporate surveys, the number-one complaint of employees is always the same. Their leaders don’t recognize them for doing a good job. Since most bosses go through the spot-the-error educational system I went through and observe their own leaders routinely model management-by-exception, they also focus on problems, not success. In fact, generous praise isn’t even a small part of most leaders’ influence repertoire. Employees hate this lopsided treatment. They do their best work and look around to see if anyone notices, but nobody does. It turns out everyone is Carlo. Everyone is waiting for a heartfelt compliment.

And now for the punch line. You can be the stranger on the bus. Maybe you already are. But if you aren’t, or aren’t as often as you’d like to be, now is your chance. Supplement your talent for spotting problems with the ability to see things going right. Then break years of tradition and say something. Remember, be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise. Not because you want a free ride for the rest of your life, but because Carlo is doing a wonderful job every single day—and he deserves to hear from you.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

48 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Power of Praise”

  1. This is so good, and so true. Thanks for sharing it and allowing me to share it with others! In the world of sales praise trumps criticism every time!

  2. Kerry, Your articles are always written in a style that is captivating and makes me want to read till the end, your message is clear and I guess I would say like a parable or fable that has a straightforward life lesson enclosed. Thx for doign this. Chris

  3. How about some direct instruction on effective appreciation? From Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg: State specific actions the person did, say how it made you feel, describe what need it fulfilled for you. An example: I am so grateful for how you have steered the Optics Lab into a professional organization. I feel relaxed with you in charge. I don’t worry. Our company’s long term success is bolstered by your efforts.

    1. Yes, failing to be specific can be confusing. People are left knowing that they did something right, but may not know exactly what.

  4. Speaking of praise, you are, by far my favorite blogger. And I’m a tough critic (though I do try to praise and am encouraged to do that more after reading your blog post today). You are a gifted writer and so insightful. Thanks for the reminder about praising others.

  5. Such great advice and a beautiful story to deliver it. I have seen the power of this approach and I try to use it often. It’s amazing the response; and even just looking people in the eye, smiling and offering a sincere hello or thank you, acknowledging our shared humanity as they do their job seems to lighten the day for both of us.

  6. Also really enjoyed the story and it does so ring true especially in my era when you were trained not only to spot the mistake or wrong doing but to punish this behavior and hardly ever reward good behavior – so glad that things have changed 🙂

  7. Such a great and simple concept; when people are praised, they will continue to do well – they will want to do a good job. When their flaws are continually pointed out it will break down their self-esteem little by little, until they have none left. Who wants a worker like that?

  8. Kerry Patterson is my favorite advice columnist. I actually send his stories home and read them to my family. (I think I’ll just read this one to my wife…)

    I have used this in my professional career, and it’s exactly as Kerry describes. Fellow employees who feel like they do “drudge work” actually go out of their way to make exception for me when I really need something — just because I recognized their great work at some time previously. I would only say that any praise we give must be real and accurate. If something someone does makes you say “Wow!”, say it to that person and let them know.

    Thanks to Kerry for another encouraging article. Wow!

        1. I read a post from you years ago that gave this same advise. One day, an employees’ wife brought in a new baby to show off – along with their other 3 kids. I remembered your advise and told them all how amazing their dad was. How he was so smart he could solve any problem – and I meant it. Those children beamed. And they still hug me whenever they see me.

  9. I love this story….you are a fantastic storyteller, Mr. Patterson. With all that is available to us on a daily basis to watch and read, we are forced to pass most of it off so that we can be productive vs overwhelmed. There is only one newsletter of the many, many that I subscribe to that I open 100% of the time…..the team at Vital Smarts delivers content that is always worth my time. Thank you.

  10. Thank you Kerry for sharing this with us. I am convicted by my quickness to spot errors and neglect praise – and I don’t have to look far – my own family is frequently the recipient of my criticisms – thank you for reminding us of the importance of speaking up when we see a job well done.

  11. Thanks Kerry for the story … the hug brought tears to my eyes.

    I too was an expert fault-finder, always looking for how things could be better and pushing to get there. It earned me praise when I improved “things” like company software, training materials etc…but, when I became a manager, I quickly realized that it did not work so well with people. Fortunately I had a manager (thanks Lynda!) who knew I really cared about my staff and my heart was in the right place and she took the time to coach me to deliver feedback not just in the way I wanted to hear it (what can I do better?) but in a more balanced and well-timed way. I also changed made my screen saver text to the word “Praise” to remind me to do that … to get the thoughts of what was going right and was so very appreciated out of my head and into the ears of my team.

  12. Thanks for this. I shared it both on fb and linkedin. Great reminder that we need to look for and see the good. Need all the managers at my company to buy into this. It really impacts ROI for the better.

  13. What a great way to remind my to “catch people doing things right”. I am too often focused on the mistakes and correcting them and I really don’t pat our people on the back enough. Thank you for the reset!

  14. Be sure to be specific in your priase and that it’s something praiseworth. I’ve seen so many support persons cringe when their boss or someone important in the office says when introducing them “here’s who really runs the place” when that’s obviously not true. A simple, “This is Jody, someone I really rely on. She keeps me organized and enhances my ability to keep this place running smoothly” would suffice.

    Thanks for sharing this story.

  15. I shared your article with my company’s management team. Keep up the great work; your articles are a must read for me and I am certain the same is true for many, many readers.

  16. I loved this piece. The imagery of riding the bus in Brazil was especially vivid for me, as that was my primary mode of transportation while I lived there. Kerry, you write stories that are compelling and evocative because you focus on human emotions and behaviors that are common to all of us. And you so often let the lesson speak for itself which is highly effective and memorable! Thanks for being a mentor to us all!

  17. I’m also reminded of the ‘morally outraged’ who wait in ambush for those doing the job to make an error in protocol or inadvertently offend someone. They are like eels that patiently wait in a dark crevice, doing nothing to improve the world, other than hoping for the next victim to pass by.

  18. Kerry,

    You always make me smile. Thank you for the uplifting message. I only wish more people would take it to heart.

  19. Whenever I get good customer service, from, say, the person on the phone at United who helps me solve a problem, I immediately log onto the website to send in a compliment. There is no direct gain for me – it would be astounding if I were to ever get that exact CS rep again – but (hopefully) rewards that person for their diligence, skill, or just attitude.

  20. This was an awesome read and it is so true. I can never become so comfortable with the people I lead, that I forget to give the praise for the great work they do.

  21. Trying to figure out if I can anonymously forward this to my boss. I just spent 2 weeks on a very demanding project. I got royally chewed out for the two things that went wrong (one of which I don’t actually think was my fault), with minimal acknowledgement of the 99% of things that went right.

  22. I have nine days left with my second graders this school year. I am going to make a point of telling three or four each day what a special job they did this year for our class. It won’t be fake or public. I know my student’s strengths and challenges. I will take each one aside and let them know what I love about them. Thank you so much for this article. It goes greatly with all the recent Maya Angelou quotes. Especially, “People won’t remember what you said or what you did. They will remember how you made them feel. I know that is not exact, but close.

  23. Spot-the-error practice in leadership will back fire as this will not achieve any results. Instead leader should focus on spot-the- good results though they are minor. This will create the window of opportunity to motivate the team for results.
    At the same time helping them to understand the mistakes will lead to positive results.

  24. Thank you for sharing this important life skill! My thesis project was about the power of praise. I heartily agree with you and appreciate the reminder!

  25. Wonderful article. I work in a Superior Court Drug Court program, where words of praise from the Judge can make the difference to participants who are struggling with addiction. A kind word of acknowledgement such as ‘don’t give up – you are worth it’ makes a life changing difference to most participants.

  26. Loved the article! I had been saving this in my Inbox until I had a time to read it. I am raising small children who crave praise. It’s hard to determine when to offer it and when to let the feeling of accomplishment be their own reward. This article really helps me to see that when in doubt, always offer praise. 😉 It can mean so much.

  27. I am just stunned that we are so focused on the negative that positive affirmations are not in our scope anymore. We do not have to be survivors – we are alive and must learn to let others also enjoy the freedom to breathe without fear.

  28. An interesting story making an interesting comment about the praise/criticism balance.

    What was the colour of the flower?

  29. Great article – thanks. I grew up in a family where I heard both – the constant fault finding. Then insincere praise – praise that had a price tag of some sort on it. After I read this article I practiced in a very short meeting with a lady. Today I was on the phone with her again and she remembered me! So it does work, and it does need to be sincere and truly felt. And I can do it with myself to help me reinforce my best and true self as then it will become effortless with others.

  30. In my Marriage and Family Therapy office, I have a half page flyer that says “Praise Positive Behavior.” I give it to many of my clients and tell them it’s the most effective way to change behavior or to have good behavior repeated… and it works with spouses, children, and pets. 😉 I recommend it be put on the refrigerator.

    Somewhere over the years I heard that you should tell someone 5 things they are doing correctly for every 1 thing you want them to change. Do you know where that ratio comes from?

  31. YOU READ THE SAME BOOK AS I DO…. BUT I WOULD LOVE TO THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS STORY IT’S SO TOUCHING AND INSPIRING.SOMETIMES PEOPLE DO IGNORE SOMALL THING THAT HAVE GREAT IMPACT TO OTHER LIKE COMPLIMENTS,SORRY AND TO SAY THANK YOU…ETC ALL THIS CAN CHANGE PEOPLE’S PERCEPTION AND CAN ACTUALLY BOOST THERE PERFORMANCE AT WORK .

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