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Praise them where they ain’t

Originally published on LinkedIn on May 19, 2019

It’s funny how we remember being praised, even years after the event.

I still recall the words of our new CEO at his very first townhall. “The talent in this company is phenomenal. As I’ve travelled round and met people I’ve been so impressed. The energy, the enthusiasm, the commitment, the openness to new ideas and the sheer tenacity is second to none and really gives me confidence for the future”.

Wow, I thought, I had no idea we were so good. In my role supporting his communications, I’d been fortunate to spend time with him in his first weeks. I knew his words came from the heart, because they weren’t the ones I’d prepared for him. He really thinks we’re something!

As I got to know him better over the next couple of years I saw this as a key part of his leadership style. It was a smart approach, for two reasons. First, people tended to come away from meeting him feeling better about themselves and the company. Second, and most important, they remembered the praise and strove to live up to it.

What he was doing was not mere flattery. He was setting out high expectations - and encouraging employees to believe they could meet them. It was a form of pre-recognition, his version of ‘Giving an A, the habit of composer Benjamin Zander to give his students an A grade on their first day and tell them their job was to keep it.

Studies have come to label this as the Pygmalion effect, the self-fulfilling prophecy whereby authority figures raise people’s performance simply by the power of positive expectations (warning - the opposite Golem effect is just as powerful!).

For some leaders, like my CEO, this ‘praise first’ approach comes naturally. But, so long as it’s sincere, it can work just as well as learned practice. I would encourage all leaders to try it. You might just find that your people raise their game. And, you never know, years later they might even remember and praise you for it.

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