I just discovered a great article by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback on why criticism seems more effective than praise in the workplace… but isn’t.
From the article:
This is one of those areas where the lessons of experience aren’t obvious — and can even be misleading.
Your observation that criticism is more often followed by improvement is probably accurate. But what’s going on isn’t what you think. In fact, it’s something called “regression to the mean” and if you don’t understand it, you and your people will be its victims.
Basically, the article argues that we all have an average performance level over time but actual performance varies from day to day and task to task. But we tend to forget this:
If you track someone’s performance task by task, you’ll discover that a great performance, one that’s far above the person’s average or mean, is usually followed by a less-inspiring performance that’s closer to the mean.
It works the same the other way. A terrible performance is usually followed by something better. No one’s making or causing this to happen. It’s part of the variability built into human activity, especially when doing something even moderately complex.
Consequently, when someone performs worse than their own average and you criticize them for it, they will tend to perform better afterwards, simply because they return to their own average. They would have done so, even if you had said nothing.
For the same reason, when someone performs better than usual and you praise them for it, their next performance will tend to be worse.
And this means that:
Even if you don’t notice these apparent connections consciously, you’re aware of them intuitively. And the most likely consequence will be that you criticize far more than you praise.
This is a brilliant insight and the lesson is that we must shift our focus from increasing performance on individual tasks to raising people’s average performance. And this is done more effectively by focusing on what people do well.
A lot of evidence suggests that positive reinforcement — identifying and building on strengths — will produce better results than a relentless focus on faults. This is important.
To improve, people need positive feedback. It’s just as important to recognize and reinforce their strengths as it is to point out where they’re falling short. And you need to understand why praise can seem dysfunctional, so you don’t withhold it.
Read the whole article – it’s brilliant and it reinforces the point we’ve made again and again that praising people for their good work makes them happier AND more effective.