The Best Kind of Praise


Brad Morgan
Director, Bettye B. Lewis Career Center
University of Tennessee College of Law

Recognizing the accomplishments of others is an important part of being a leader. Coworkers, reports, and yes, even bosses, appreciate being recognized when they perform well. This is, of course, not revelatory to any of you. The power of praise has been well documented and incorporated in the day to day activities of law firms, businesses, non-profits, schools, and any other organization that you can think of.

Often we are held back from our full potential to lead—as well as holding others back from reaching their full potential—not because we do not give praise when praise is due, but because we give ineffective praise.

Shawn Achor, Harvard professor and one of the most entertaining and enlightening TED speaker that I have ever seen, provides us with meaningful insight when it comes to offering praise.

First, Professor Achor highlights the potential of praise:

“When done right, praise primes the brain for higher performance, which means that the more we praise, the more success we create. And the more successes there are, the more there is to praise. The research I’ve been doing over the past five years shows that the more you can authentically shine praise on everyone in your ecosystem, the more your potential, individually and collectively, rises.” (What’s the Worst Kind of Praise You Can Give?, Shawn Achor, TED Feb. 2018).

Second, Professor Achor identifies a common praise-deficiency: using superlatives when praising. Using words or phrases such as “you were the best,” or “you were smartest,” is, in reality, not actually praising. It is comparing.

Comparing robs the one being praised of the opportunity to actually learn what they did well so that they can build on that success. For example, I frequently attend professional conferences where colleagues and I both present and listen to several presentations in any one day. Rather than tell my colleague that his presentation was “the best,” imagine the impact that my praise can have by telling him that his “presentation was clearly very well researched, that it provided very timely and actionable information, and the comedic timing in his jokes was impeccable.” My colleague has been praised, but beyond that he now has a better understanding of why his presentation went well, and what he can build on for the future.

Comparing also robs the one giving the praise of the opportunity to impact future performance. In the example above, as the one giving the praise, I have done my part to ensure that my colleague’s future presentations remain well researched, timely, and funny. All things that I want to see.

It has been said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” When it comes to praise and leadership, it is most certainly a thief of opportunity. Opportunity to help shape future performance. Opportunity to learn from the past.

Let’s not squander those opportunities by offering the worst kind of praise.

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