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Praise Run Amuck

Management should shower accolades on the habitually tardy worker who suddenly shows up for work on time.

That's what a source says in a recent Wall Street Journal article on how many of today's young adults can't cope in the workplace without boatloads of backslapping and gold stars.

According to the article:

Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands' End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff "celebrations assistant" whose job it is to throw confetti -- 25 pounds a week -- at employees. ...

But some researchers suggest that inappropriate kudos are turning too many adults into narcissistic praise-junkies. The upshot: A lot of today's young adults feel insecure if they're not regularly complimented.

America's praise fixation has economic, labor and social ramifications. Adults who were overpraised as children are apt to be narcissistic at work and in personal relationships, says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. Narcissists aren't good at basking in other people's glory, which makes for problematic marriages and work relationships, she says. ... when it comes to praise today, "Gen Xers and Gen Yers don't just say they want it. They are also saying they require it," says Chip Toth, an executive coach based in Denver. How do young workers say they're not getting enough? "They leave," says Mr. Toth.

New York Magazine ran a related story earlier this year, focusing on the "inverse power of praise" on
children--praise given by parents and teachers. The story focuses on several studies and interviews experts, which say too much general praise about a child being "smart" swells his head and makes him think he doesn't need to expend effort. Praise should be specific and sincere, the story suggests.

According to the story:

[Dr. Roy Baumeister] will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.” ...

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.

Mind Over Praise

A Wall Street Journal forum tied to the story gathered a stream of comments; I agree in particular with one that urges moderation. Too much of any good thing--praise included--loses its potency and becomes undervalued.

Spoon-feeding children sugar every hour isn't a good idea. Nor is lavishing praise on them just for waking up or getting to school on time. It seems to me that doing so breeds employees who bolt just because their employers don't give them all-star status all the time.

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