Specific Praise

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.

More On Flattery

Yesterday I wrote about the distinction between true appreciation and real compliments to people’s hard work versus empty flattery. Today’s post continues on that theme. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie continues his thoughts on flattery writing, “That’s all flattery is – cheap praise. I once read a definition of flattery that may be worth repeating: Flattery is telling the other person precisely what he thinks about himself.”

 

I like thinking about this second quote from Carnegie on flattery. As someone who was a successful business person and leader,  Carnegie was subject to plenty of flattery. As you achieve more and become more successful people have more of an incentive to be on your good side. This means that flattery can have a bigger payoff for those individuals who want to gain something by being your friend or ally. You can become a target of flattery that makes you feel good, but potentially leaves you vulnerable to those who simply want something from you.

 

If we are someone who is vulnerable to flattery, we must remember Carnegie’s quote. Flattery is not honest feedback about who we are, about the quality of our decisions, or about our value to the organizations we are a part of. Flattery is about someone else who wants to gain something by allying themselves with us. That individual might want a promotion, might want more money, or might want more status by getting to tell others that they are part of our inner circle. The worst part is that since their flattery is insincere, it might make us overconfident about the decisions we have made, about our perspective on the future, and about our own self worth. Ultimately, this could lead us to make worse future decisions and to be overconfident and arrogant. Flattery in the end hurts the individual being flattered and the organizations they are a part of.

 

If we find ourselves to be the one dishing out the flattery, we should really reconsider what we are doing. Are we flattering another person because we feel that we can’t give them honest feedback and must flatter them? If so, we might want to find anther organization to be a part of, or we might want to band together with others to have a flattery intervention and agree to all quit flattering the person who does not deserve it. When we flatter someone else for our own gain, we are trading off long-term success and stability of something bigger than ourselves for our own personal short-term gain. This strategy might work well initially, but in the long run it will spell doom for ourselves and the organizations we are a part of.

 

Think deeply about honest feedback, and avoid flattery, because it will hurt us regardless of whether we are the giver or receiver.

The Difference Between Appreciation and Flattery

Flattery can be dangerous. It is nice to be flattered, but it can be distorting, can lead one to make rash decisions, and can make you overconfident and close-minded. We all want to be appreciated in our lives for what we do, but we should keep our guard up to recognize when someone is trying to flatter us with praise we don’t deserve.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie discusses the distinction between genuine praise and insincere flattery. He writes, “The difference between appreciation and flattery? That is simple. One is sincere and the other is insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.” 

 

Carnegie’s book does not teach you how to manipulate people to like you and it does not provide a bunch of hacks to get people to think you are a great person. It is not a book about becoming famous and important to gain friends. It focuses on what other people need in their lives to feel accepted, to feel valuable, and to feel as though their needs and concerns are being addressed. How to Win Friends and Influence People is about building sincere relationships with the people in our lives.

 

Carnegie’s quote above demonstrates that idea. Flattery might get people to like you, but it is driven by selfish motives and props up people in ways that are harmful to the individual and everyone who depends on them. Flattery is ultimately more about ourselves than about other people. Carnegie encourages us to avoid flattering other people and to avoid being taken in by the flattery of others.

 

His advice is to cultivate real relationships and learn to be honest with the people around us. We should remember the names of our colleagues, learn a little about them, and find ways to engage with them and appreciate them and the quality work they do. We can praise the virtuous qualities of people in our lives without flattering them with undeserved praise. Developing real relationships and showing genuine appreciation of those in our lives will help them to become better people while flattery will create blind-spots and lead to hubris for others, setting them up for a disastrous fall.

Criticism and Ego

“The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life,” Ryan holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy. If we are honest with ourselves, which is hard and uncomfortable, we see that we are not quite as great as we like to believe and we don’t exist in the center of an important world as we also like to believe. Critical feedback, not just flattery but true critiques of our work, effort, and actions is important if we actually want to be effective and make a positive impact on the planet.

 

“The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however,” Continues Holiday. “Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are — That is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.”

 

Hearing feedback and truly accepting feedback are two different things. Many of us, I know me in particular, will hear positive feedback and flattery and feel great about ourselves. We will walk around with our head held up and begin to see the world in terms of all things we deserve and have earned. Negative feedback (again if you are anything like me) puts us on the defensive. Our brain starts to work double time to disprove the negative feedback. Our excuse generator kicks into gear and the negative feedback we received is discredited by a host of factors that are outside of our control and contributed to the the negative outcome, performance, situation, or behavior. In this typical model of taking (or not taking) feedback, we adjust the world to be what we want it to be. We take credit for the good things that happen around us while discounting our contributions to the negative. We enjoy the positive feedback and praise of others while deflecting the negative feedback and criticism about ourselves.

 

If our goal is simply to enjoy life and reduce friction for ourselves as we move through the years this this strategy is fine. Life is a challenge and living in a comfortable reality (or at least desiring such an existence) is fine. If however, we want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, we need to live outside the comfortable false existence that our brains seem to crave. If we want to participate in politics, if we want to create a company, if we want to be civically focused in our community, we have to see the world clearly, and that means that we have to see our place in the world clearly. Getting beyond our ego and accepting critical feedback is a key piece of seeing the world clearly and understanding the world as it is and not as our brain wants it to be. We will not grow if we only receive positive feedback, and studies of children praised for good performance show that kids are less daring and less likely to work hard and perform well when praised for a good performance. Receiving feedback about working hard and being able to learn from areas where the outcome was not as great as it could be is what helps us develop and grow. Being comfortable with criticism and being able to accept that we have shortcomings is crucial for being engaged in the world and taking steps to improve the world we live in.