The worst piece of praise I’ve received after a talk is, “you were the best speaker today". You may be asking what is so bad about that, but first of all, it undercut all the other speakers. Moreover, it reminds me of the fact that in many other cases I won’t be the best speaker, so now I feel nervous and self-conscious. Instead of encouraging me, this comment makes me unbalanced in the future.

Some people treat praise like a limited commodity. They believe that the key to advancement and success must be to absorb and stock up as much recognition and admiration as possible. This is the philosophy we learn in school, and then we get honed to brutal efficiency in the working world.

Praise creates what I call a virtuous cycle — the more you give, the more you enhance your own supply. When done right, praise primes the brain for higher performance, which means that the more we praise, the more success we create. And the more successes there are, the more there is to praise.

The research I’ve been doing over the past five years shows that the more you can authentically shine praise on everyone in your ecosystem, the more your potential, individually and collectively, rises.

I’m willing to guess that most people recognize that praise is invaluable. The problem in most of our businesses, schools and relationships isn’t just that we fail to praise enough; it is that we have been praising the wrong way. I would go so far as to say that our current model of praise de-motivates our teams, exacerbates internal strife in our families, and places a cap on our potential. By telling someone they are “better” or “the best,” you are placing a limit on your expectation for what they can achieve. I say to people, many times, if you want to enhance others, do not compare them. As a tutor, this has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, because I thought I was intuitively praising others; but no matter how good my intentions are, if I excitedly say to a child “You were the best one out there!” I just taught them that my love and excitement were predicated on their position compared to others.

Nothing undercuts Big Potential — the success you can only achieve in a virtuous cycle with others — more than comparison praise. The easiest way to stop comparison praise is to eliminate superlatives, like “the best,” “the fastest,” “the smartest,” “the prettiest.”

Why do we have to diminish everyone else in the room in an attempt to praise one individual? Comparison praise feeds into the Small Potential — the limited success that you achieve alone — mentality that success, leadership, creativity, beauty, love, or anything else that we care about are limited resources. When you tell a group of people that only a certain percentage of them can be successful, you are dampening everyone’s drive and ambition. The easiest way to stop comparison praise is to eliminate superlatives from our vocabulary — “the best,” “the fastest,” “the smartest,” “the prettiest.” Instead, follow what I consider an non-volatile law of praise for leaders and parents: Do not compliment someone at the expense of others.

In the working world, the pox of comparison praise appears in the form of performance reviews, particularly those that “grade” employees on a numerical scale. They may sound harmless enough in theory. However, when managers mistakenly believe that only a finite number of their employees can be “A” performers, they end up demotivating and stirring up resentment among all those who end up with lower grades.

In a fascinating article, David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute posits a few more reasons why performance reviews should be obsolete. He argues that the numerical rating systems used by many companies don’t take into account how work gets done today. Work is happening in teams more than ever, he says, with many people working on multiple teams that are often spread throughout the world. But one may ask would people get less praise and less constructive feedback if we were to eliminate performance reviews? Actually, the opposite is true. Of the thirty top companies studied by the NeuroLeadership Institute, managers were actually giving constructive feedback and praise three to four times more often in the absence of performance reviews. Luckily, some companies are embracing this idea.
Back in 2011, the management at Adobe called a town hall meeting to discuss what they had found to be the biggest stumbling block to engagement scores and happiness: the 1-to-5 performance rating system for the employees. They did away with the system completely once they recognized the negative impact it was having on attracting and keeping good talent. Even GE, which famously pioneered the idea of ranking employees and then eliminating the bottom 10 percent, has largely done away with this outdated system. There’s an old saying: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If we really want to enhance others, we must stop comparing.

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