Specific Praise

One of the points from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People that I wrote about at length was praise versus flattery. Carnegie argues for praising people on a regular and consistent basis for quality work and good effort. But, Carnegie explicitly warns against the use of empty flattery. While praise is important, empty flattery is dangerous and can backfire.


To make sure that your praise is not just empty flattery and to make sure that your praise does what is intended, Carnegie suggests that you get specific, “Everybody likes to be praised, but when praise is specific, it comes across as sincere – not something the other person may be saying just to make one feel good.”


Being specific with praise is difficult. We focus so much on ourselves, that we easily overlook the times when our spouse cleans the counters or when an employee redesigns a spreadsheet to save everyone else some minor headaches. These positive moments might slip by, and later we might want to say something nice about the other person, but if we didn’t pay attention, then we might not be able to say more than, “I think you are great.”


Specific praise shows that we actually notice and pay attention to the other person. What is more, it shows that we value them and their contribution to our life or work. If we want to be sincere, and avoid empty flattery, then we need to look for moments to praise others. Whether it is noticing as soon as we get home that the counters were scrubbed or immediately sending a thank you email to our hardworking colleague, we should make an effort to be timely with our praise. That provides us with consistency and reinforces the appreciation we have for the other person and what they have done for us. Also, by calling these moments out directly, it will hopefully help us remember them for longer, so we can reference these positive moments when we are trying to be more sincere in our reflections on the other person.
On a side note, today I was reading an article on Vox by Emily Todd VanDerWerff and want to share a quick line from her that ties in with Dale Carnegie’s writing. In an article regarding President Trump, VanDerWerff writes, “he reminds me a lot of the worst boss I’ve ever had, a man who would learn one tiny detail about each of his employees, then relentlessly riff on that detail for as long as they might work for him.”


This ties in with Carnegie’s advice on being specific and sincere about your employees (or the people in your life in general). Remember that people change, grow, and develop new interests and ideas over time. It is great to learn something about another person, but it is not great to only learn one thing and to only reference that one thing in perpetuity. You will quickly seem out of touch, and it will show that you are insincere and don’t care about the other. Just as you should use specific praise that reflects real situations, you should also continue to learn about the people around you, so you can back-up your specific praise with context about the person who has done a good job or has done something nice and helpful for you.

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