An issue that comes up repeatedly in my work as an executive coach and facilitator is the ineffectiveness of positive feedback. It frequently fails to make an impact, and at times it can even cause intense anxiety. But isn't praise supposed to make us feel good? What's going on? I see three factors at work:
1) Waiting for the Other Shoe
When we deliver negative feedback (or any unpleasant message), we often try to soften the blow by leading with something positive. As a result, people on the receiving end may come to hear positive feedback as a hollow preamble to the real message. Rather than feeling genuinely appreciated, they're waiting for the other shoe to drop.
2) Staying Out of Debt
A related dynamic is the use of positive feedback to overcome resistance to a request or a demand. The feedback can create a sense of obligation, a "debt" that the recipient feels compelled to "repay" by acceding to the giver's wishes. There's an underlying logic here, but there's also an inherent contradiction: most people don't like being in debt.
3) Currency Devaluation
A common problem with positive feedback is simply that like any currency it loses value when there's too much in circulation. Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes have noted that praise can be a "'dissatisfier.' Like a salary, it is less likely to motivate when it's given out than demotivate when it's expected but withheld." I disagree with their contention that merely showing interest in someone's work is an adequate substitute for actual compliments, but they're absolutely right to observe that too much praise renders all such feedback meaningless.
So how do we avoid these traps? I have two recommendations: First, although I firmly believe in the value of soft startups
that initiate difficult conversations on a positive note, feedback given in that context should be authentic and relevant to the issue at hand. Don't abuse the soft startup principle by swaddling a substantive critique in superficial happy-talk.
Second, try giving some positive feedback...and stopping right there. Don't go overboard--bear in mind that too much praise will eventually have the same effect as no praise at all. But by uncoupling the feedback from any goals other than rewarding the recipient, you'll increase its value as a motivator.
UPDATE: Some great comments below make me realize that in addition to being more thoughtful about giving positive feedback, we may also need to be more thoughtful about receiving it. If we blindly react to praise with (in Peter Vajda's words) "skepticism, dis-belief, arm's-length appreciation,and/or embarrassment," that's going to make the giver feel awkward, if not resentful, and it's going to keep us from developing a stronger relationship. As always in interpersonal dynamics, it's a two-way street.
UPDATE 2: Stanford psychology prof Carol Dweck has recently suggested that praising kids can stunt their intellect. (Thanks to Marnie Webb for the link.) And Po Bronson has a longer piece in New York magazine that refers to Dweck's findings, The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.