15 August 2007

Good habit: accept praise graciously

I am about to reveal my gross American point of view bias.

Even in completely broken organizations, I have had the pleasure of working with folks who were really able to perform. They were rarely singled out for recognition and on the unusual event of being praised, my experience is that most people dismiss it: It would be immodest to agree; It can be uncomfortable to have a spotlight on you; Acceptance might raise or lower your status away from where you want it; You might not be sure whether you warrant the recognition. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate or reasonable explanations for dismissing praise. I’m saying that even when praise is offered it can be hard to make it stick.

To my mind, people don’t hear how appreciated they are often enough. Or often at all. I have heard some arguments for being stingy with praise, but I have not found any compelling. If you are one of these practicing praisemisers, please comment. I’m prepared, if leery, to be convinced. Simple devil’s advocates needn’t bother – it’s going to take both rationality and passion to sway me.

When I say praise, I mean a merit-based compliment or token supported by evidence, cited or personally verified. Giving praise necessarily forces me to invest myself twice in delivering it.
  1. I am singling myself out as having paid attention, so I am expected to know what I am talking about. I need to be a credible source.
  2. When I provide evidence, I cannot help but tie my reputation to my comments. Since my comments have to do with your actions, I stake a piece of my rep on your past and future actions. The stronger the praise, the more of my rep I am staking.
So while I’m (probably) more likely to give praise than the next person, I also (probably) consider it a bigger deal. Prior to skilling up, I have allowed myself to get combative over accepting praise [hi, Geoff!].

I am not kidding around when I recognize praiseworthy work. When receiving praise, dismissing or deflecting it peripherally impacts the giver. You don’t have to be graceful, just gracious. If you would like to deflect the attention, accept and build: “Thanks for that. The real hero here is Amelia. Without her…” Notice the conspicuous lack of the word but tying the two sentences together. But is an inelegant acceptance limiting mechanism. Don’t try to sneak in a dismissal or deflection with a lazy language convention.

Even if you disagree with the praise, be gracious: “Thank you. In this instance, I find myself obliged to point out that all the credit belongs with…” Is my example graceful? Not even vaguely. It's practically all face saving disclaimer. Keep in mind that your refusal to accept praise can impact the giver personally and professionally.

Am I guilty of refusing praise? You bet. And when I catch myself unintentionally refusing it, I suck up my discomfort and accept the recognition. In fact, I’m about to do that shortly. It's not like I'm modest.


A is A said...

To build on my earlier comments regarding "respect and recognition". Though I feel that praise is rarely necessary, that does not also mean it is not appreciated. It should be appreciated and it is important to receive praise graciously. I find that refusing to accept praise is nearly as off-putting as "puffing up" about it. Terse words, among honest people, are sufficient, though.

Your concerns are wholly understandable. In all my time, I've found only one way to graciously, and successfully accept praise. I simply look them in the eyes, nod, and say "thank you." No other words lead to the desired result.

The way I handle it probably derives somewhat from my teaching experience. I refuse to pander. In the old school, it might be called "tough love," but in my experience this approach conveys a few important things. It communicates respect (treating people as adults) and confidence (in their ability to succeed). Finally, it depends on a clear standard. Once these things were established after the first few weeks of class, any compliment or word of praise were taken at full value.

This may sound somewhat radical, but I've found the success of praise has much to do with the environment and little to do with the method of giving or receiving. If it is not handed out like candy, there is a credible benchmark for comparison, and the organization (or person) has a reputation for straight-talking, praise can be taken as it should be.

Good point about staking reputation, but that's a core element of a manager's job. They're staking their job on the work of everyone down the line, so a word of honest praise should not be much of a stretch.

Praise should always be considered a big deal. When people understand you treat it that way, they will accept it much more willingly. This is one area in which teaching has offered me a lot of background experience.

Oh, and don't worry about ducking praise. If I catch you doing it, I'll metaphorically smack you upside the head. ;-)

EGV said...

I’m also in the just say “thank you” crowd. Except under circumstances wherein I know full well that I worked a miracle, I have a hard time accepting praise. Nothing happens in a vacuum and I feel like I’m taking someone else’s kudos. I also generally feel pretty good about myself and worry that I will read as “puffing up” when I accept the praise. Though I do still want to be recognized. What a nuisance.

It seems to me that the business world is already plenty primed with tough love. I rarely hear compliments in the office – I’ve given out more public recognition than I have heard given out by all the people I have ever worked with combined. Unfortunately, the business world is full of so much false praise as well that it is hard to trust a compliment, especially in a politically charged environment. I agree that any praise must ring true with respect and confidence in ability to be taken at face value.

Well spoken about the environment in which praise can be credibly delivered. My own take there is that you can give out a lot of praise – when it is merited – and not risk devaluing it due to volume and frequency. But there does have to be a limit somewhere on the back-patting to keep things from getting ridiculous.

Can you say more about why you feel that praise is rarely necessary? I am especially interested in this in lieu of the reading that I’ve done around managing Millennials.