I'm going to revisit a topic that we've touched on before, this time in a slightly different context. The past quarter century has seen major changes in the way parents, educators, day-care workers, health care providers, and sports leaders have related to the children in their charge. One of the most visible of these is the emphasis on praise. We had lots of good comments when we discussed this before, including a seasoned mother and grandmother encouraging us to think about balance in how we approach decisions about praising our children.
Now let's look at the entrance of this "most-praised generation" into the workplace and how the corporate world has been forced to adjust to younger workers' "needs" (and demands) for constant feedback and affirmation. From Jeffrey Zaslow in today's Wall Street Journal:
LOVE unconditionally. PRAISE specifically.
I encourage you to read the whole article. It's full of fascinating examples (and not all negative, I might add) of how the business world is adapting to the changes in how Gen-X'ers and Gen-Y'ers feel about themselves and demand that others constantly reinforce those feelings. Some of these adjustments are ones that all of us would enjoy and benefit from, such as thank you notes from a boss after a particularly grueling week or a well-executed presentation or set of meetings. But the extent to which many businesses are having to celebrate normal activities in the office or store or factory would be amusing if it weren't so disturbing.
You, You, You -- you really are special, you are! You've got everything going for you. You're attractive, witty, brilliant. "Gifted" is the word that comes to mind.Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking -- by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools that used to name one "student of the month" and these days name 40.
Now, as this greatest generation grows up, the culture of praise is reaching deeply into the adult world. Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit.
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. She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its "Celebration Voice Mailboxes."
And what's a forward-thinking company to do? Opting out of the praise machine may not be an option:
In fact, throughout history, younger generations have wanted praise from their elders. As Napoleon said: "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon." But 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.
All of this, however, does create a dilemma for professors and business leaders who are averse to handing out praise for praise's sake:
So...to bring this back to the world of the children and grandchildren we're currently raising and loving. Doesn't my child need to know that he is loved, appreciated, admired?
At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, marketing consultant Steve Smolinsky teaches students in their late 20s who've left the corporate world to get M.B.A. degrees. He and his colleagues feel handcuffed by the language of self-esteem, he says. "You have to tell students, 'It's not as good as you can do. You're really smart, and can do better.'"
Mr. Smolinsky enjoys giving praise when it's warranted, he says, "but there needs to be a flip side. When people are lousy, they need to be told that." He notices that his students often disregard his harsher comments. "They'll say, 'Yeah, well...' I don't believe they really hear it."
In the end, ego-stroking may feel good, but it doesn't lead to happiness, says Prof. Twenge, the narcissism researcher, who has written a book titled "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable than Ever Before." She would like to declare a moratorium on "meaningless, baseless praise," which often starts in nursery school. She is unimpressed with self-esteem preschool ditties, such as the one set to the tune of "Frère Jacques": "I am special/ I am special/ Look at me..."
My answer is that we need to think about this in two categories. I want to LOVE my child UNconditionally. "You, my little one, are wonderful because God made you and He gave you to me and I couldn't possibly love you any more than I already do. No matter what you do, where you go, whether you delight me or disappoint me, I will always love you." No strings, no conditions, expressed or implied.
Praise is somewhat different. Praise needs to (most of the time) be accomplishment- or growth-based. "I'm so proud of the improvements you've made in how you respond to disappointment. Remember last year when you pouted all day long because you had to miss the picnic? I know that missing this campout hurts, but what a difference in your reaction this time!" Or, "Wow! That is the most realistic drawing of an animal I've ever seen you do! Good job! Such progress you're making!"
I don't want to imply that we should never give general praise or tell our children that they're intelligent or have a great sense of humor or that they're good writers, etc. There are times when I believe they need to get a sense of how we view them as a whole. But if we can't back that up with specific examples, we're not only wasting our breath, we're inflating their perceptions of themselves and we may also be setting them up to eventually distrust the compliments that other people pay them.
In general, then, I encourage you (and me--I'm still doing this!) to LOVE unconditionally and PRAISE specifically. Hopefully we can raise a generation of citizens and workers who appreciate being appreciated but who don't require a gallon of confetti for showing up on time :-)
Hat tip: Steph K.