The Problem with Praising People: From Management of the Absurd

For those interested in management and leadership, I’d like to recommend Richard Farson’s Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, 172 pages). I see many insights in this book that could be helpful for Church leaders and parents, though it is primarily aimed at managers in Corporate America.

In Chapter 3, for example, Farson argues that “management skills” and techniques are not the way to deal with people, especially those closest to us. The more a relationship matters, the less “skills” matter, and the more important it is who were are, not what techniques we practice. Using techniques from a book or course to deal with relationships can backfire, for people figure out that they are being manipulated with techniques. To illustrate his point, he asked adults what things about their relationship with their parents they especially prized. None of the results were something that you could find in a parenting handbook, and none are things that you can readily teach to others. They were things like parents pretending to be monsters while playing, or a father in his suit sitting down on the ground to eat dirty potatoes that a child had baked for him. They were spontaneous expressions of love and kindness that aren’t covered by memorized techniques.

Intrigued, the author asked similar questions of people about their relationships with bosses, and again got answers far outside the realm of management techniques, often covering spontaneous expressions of humanity, but nothing that could be taught to someone. It was character that counted, not techniques. It is who were are that matters most, not the skills we apply, when we are dealing with people.

I especially appreciated his insights in Chapter 12, “Praising People Does Not Motivate Them.” He points out that praise is often a form of evaluation – “you are doing a good job” – and people often don’t like being judged, even when the judgment is favorable. Praise can also be a way of gaining status over someone. If I were to tell a grandmaster in chess that he or she plays the endgame very well, it would be presumptuous, as if I were smart enough to sit in judgment. A better compliment would be “I love to study your endgames” or “You look much better than Bobby Fischer.”

Importantly, most people know that praise is often associated with criticism. There have been some Church leaders I’ve worked with who would always preface criticism with some form of praise. Whenever they told me that I was doing a great job in my calling, I learned to brace myself for some painful criticism. The “sandwich” technique of preceding and following criticism with a sugarcoating of praise destroys the value of praise.

Praise can also be an easy way out of real communication. It’s easier to give praise, according to Farson, that it is to provide brilliant insights or helpful criticism or witty retorts.

Praise matter most, according to Farson, when it has real credibility, when it is clear that it isn’t part of manipulation or sugarcoating or bland conversation. For example, praise about us in a letter written to a third party by someone who did not know that we would ever learn of the letter can be credible and truly helpful praise.

Now that I think of it, one of my pet peeves in the Church has been the shallow praise that well-meaning leaders (myself included, in retrospect) occasionally heap upon their people, especially the youth. When I attend a youth conference and hear speakers who don’t know the kids or youth leaders tell them that they are the choicest generation ever, I want to raise my hand and say, “Hey, I thought my generation was the choicest ever. That’s what we were told. What makes these kids so much better than us?” OK, so I’m jealous and a sore loser, I guess, but I think the kids aren’t especially convinced or motivated by the praise. On the other hand, I know these leaders really love and respect the young people, especially those who really know them, so the praise may be meaningful. I just wonder if “mass” praise to youth in a youth conference has much value. I’d appreciate any thoughts you have.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Praising People: From Management of the Absurd

  1. I tend to agree with you. While I hadn’t thought that much about the subject of praise, it is always uncomfortable to just get “empty” praise from people, especially if I don’t feel that way about myself.

    While I have read quite a few books about techniques, such as “The One-Minute Manager”, I have never been particularly comfortable with these ideas either. Perhaps some of these techniques, such as developing short, concise goals, can be helpful, but only when combined with real human warmth.

    I will have to see if I can find this book somewhere. Maybe the local library has it.

  2. I agree as well. I think that one big danger that we face in leadership positions (or any position) is that we heap praise or criticism recklessly. I don’t think I could criticize anyone for this, even the most egregious examples, because it is usually so sincere and well intentioned. But I think knowing people and responding to them accordingly.

  3. Hey Jeff
    In regards to your post about praise, I think that the introductions that some people give for speakers (especially by spouses) sometimes get a little carried away. It is interesting to hear about the accomplishments of some of our leaders though. As far as criticism, I think that sandwhiching critisim with expressions of love is the best method of delivery. True honest praise is something cherished by our children and something my parents never gave enough of to me. This resulted in my development of a type A personality…always trying to prove my worth to them. I have since recovered from my type A lifestyle and have learned to relax(simplify)more and enjoy lifes journey. I no longer hunger for my parents praise. I get embarrassed by praise at work…but I would rather have it than most cases. Thanks…Tom Sanford AZ

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