Motivating people is hard. It has been well established that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment, yet still punish. The guides say, "praise lavishly". I try to follow this simple step but it never gets any easier. The results are inconsistent, and in many cases instead of motivation I created resentment!

Why is it so hard to praise lavishly? Because it's so easy to mix up two distinctly separate but very similar things.

Gratitude isn't praise and praise isn't gratitude. Each has different meanings, purposes, and effects. Frequently when a situation needs praise, gratitude is instead delivered. Gratitude is very important, but not suitable for all situations. When we share our gratitude it certainly strengthens bonds between people but gratitude is an external tool.

Gratitude is focusing on me. I appreciate it. It isn't acknowledging the other person as much as myself. Praise, however, is entirely focusing on them. It is an internal connection to that person, but only when done right. Praise is the opportunity to connect and acknowledge a person and provide recognition of the their progress and improvement.

This internal aspect is why praise is fragile. When praise is not entirely genuine it can be more damaging to a relationship than an outright insult.  There is a word for this type of false praise: flattery. Flattery may help when you don't know the person and trying to make a sale. To improve motivation, it will leave you frustrated.

Flattery is counterfeit, and like counterfeit money, it will eventually get you into trouble if you pass it to someone else. – Dale Carnegie

When genuine praise is given, it shows deep understanding and acknowledgement. Few things are more motivating than praise! Money, or even fame, will fail to motivate someone to push themselves and excel. After the basic human needs are met, what people crave most is acknowledgement of being. Praise gives that.

I discussed these thoughts with my wife and she challenged some of the key assertions. Fortunately we were eating dinner at the time so I looked at her and said, "Thank you for cooking dinner, I really appreciate it." I express gratitude regularly, and this was not uncommon. I meant it, too! I appreciate her dinner. She cheerily replied, "You're welcome!" and the conversation moved on without much change.

A few moments later I said, "You really did a great job on this sauce, the meat is cooked perfectly and the flavors have really come together." and her eyes lit up. At that moment she was more motivated, and not because the gratitude before hand.

Gratitude may get me a meal tomorrow. Praise will make it great.

Both praise and gratitude have to be honest, but it's far more important for praise. Of course it should be, praise is a connection inside a person. If I were to put on a sly salesman's smile and try to manipulate her feelings, she wouldn't feel anything but used and resentful. Perhaps only subconsciously but that resentment would stick around. Resentment is easy to spill and hard to clean up.

We are hard wired to avoid flattery. When we see a human face, our entire brain lights up with activity. Our brains are remarkably adept at discovering disingenuous behaviors and our guts hint to us what other's motivations truly are. We unfortunately ignore that feeling until it is too late. Our brain may hint at us to not trust someone, but it doesn't give us any justification. Flattery serves to confuse us, which puts us on our guard and when we are guarded we cannot trust.

Trust and honesty are key ingredients to genuine praise. Genuine words that are honestly spoken in good intent are required to deliver praise. That is no easy task and it explains why praise is so often substituted with gratitude. Gratitude is external. It's easy. I don't need to learn or know about you. But I won't motivate you. Gratitude let's me only think of myself. Did I like it? Would I like it again? Yes! I better say thank you! It's that simple. Now with praise the questions become so much more complex, otherwise it runs the risk of being false praise.

In my example above I know my wife worries about the quality of her cooking. If I told Gordon Ramsey that the flavors were really coming together, the praise would fall flat because it's only flattery. "Of course, that's the whole point you horse's arse!". It wouldn't be a comfortable experience after that.

I suspect Gordon Ramsey doesn't require praise for his cooking. Or gratitude.

I suspect Gordon Ramsey doesn't require praise for his cooking. Or gratitude.

And there is another side of flattery. The guilt from the receiving party. As a developer, I've often times been praised by people who still get puzzled by the power button on a computer. When one of these blessed luddites shares, "You're the best programmer ever!" I don't feel good, I feel like they need to get out and meet more programmers. Then I feel guilty that I can't just accept the compliment. Better praise in that situation is talking about the attributes that are understood. Praise my punctuality, my tenacity, my responsiveness. Acknowledge something about me.

In a perfect world people wouldn't resent flattery or any other type of false praise. In almost all cases, the intention is good but we rarely judge actions based on the intention. We judge others based on how we feel. I don't think we can help it. We're surrounded by a world that rewards short-term gains over long-term sustainable progress. This means the flattery of sales people has a financial upside, and in turn we learn to be defensive, and grow weary and distrustful.

This is why those who motivate others the best know how to give praise and gratitude. Giving praise is a skill, it must be practiced and developed. Most importantly, it stems from truly knowing and understanding the other person.


Cover photo courtesy of Flickr user Fern.