Christien Louviere blogs here about the generation of Americans that require "praise inflation" in order to function in the workplace. We all know I don't have kids, right? So let me talk about this as a friend of people who have kids, as a people manager, intense people-watcher and as a dog owner (it will make sense, I promise).
It's been relatively recently that I have developed friendships with people that have kids; not for any particular reason, just that my friends started having babies within the last five years or so and I have developed new friendlships with people that have older kids. I am an only child and we moved around a lot when I was younger. I spent more time with adults than the average kid. Plus, I was afraid of getting in trouble when I was young. Yeah, I was pretty much afraid of any kind of discipline, partly because parents spanked back then and partly because I don't like to disappoint people. What can I say, I am textbook.
It's been my observation that many parents would rather befriend their children than help them build a foundation for a good adult life. Of course, none of my friends are like that. It's just stuff I mostly observe in the checkout line at the grocery store. Yeah, that pretty much makes me an expert.
When I read that article, I was thinking that the parents that coddle their children are setting them up for failure later. The parents are afraid to parent when it gets hard so they do what they can to make it easy and that is not fair to the kid. Life, including childhood, is full of disappointment. Parents need to teach their kids how to accept disappointment ("I'm sorry, honey, but you don't get a trophy if you don't win. I'll be right here rooting you on when you give it another shot"). That way, their kids don't have a meltdown at the faintest sign of real-life disappointment. I'm sure it's harder in practice than sitting down at a keyboard and writing about it but parenting is what you sign up for when you have a kid and I don't think anybody thinks it is easy (which is one reason why many of us choose not to do it!).
OK, this wasn't meant to be an essay on parenting. Like I said, I don't have kids, but I do admire some of my friends who are exceptional parents (Cheryl with her young kids and Suzanne with her older, almost adult to adult kids). Anyway, the reason why all this parenting stuff has any relevance at all to what I write about here is the fact that when the coddled kids reach adulthood, the rest of the world gets to deal with them. And the workplace is THE place where reward and disappointment happen. Admit it, you are thinking about some formerly coddled child that you have had to deal with in the workplace. We ALL have.
When I think about how I respond to employees (my reports as well as co-workers), I can definitely say that when I praise someone, I am being sincere. I really don't have it in me to be insincere. When someone is struggling with something, I can be encouraging, but I refuse to be fake. Praising someone for showing up to work on time? I don't think so. It's kind of the laws of supply and demand that make my praise worth something. I don't lavish it on everyone excessively but when I do, it's real (not that everyone is waiting around for my praise). If someone is seeming to need the praise, I try to diagnose what is going on and how I can respond in a way that is real and comforting. That is not always easy, but a "I have total confidence that you can do this!" goes a long way.
I recall having conversations with managers in the past about how I like to be rewarded (and unfortunately, Cuba Gooding Junior is dancing through my mind right now...show it to me!). People respond to different things and it seems that in this article, I could be classified as an old-timer. I think it's good to understand how people like to be rewarded and then use it when the person deserves to be rewarded. I, for one, would completely avoid eye contact with a confetti wielding reward fairy walking down my hall.
I think about the times in my career when I have grown professionally and disappointment (or failure) plays a role in many of them. I would tell you that I wouldn't change any of those situations, but that would be a lie. I would change a few of them that I found particularly painful (specifically, when I felt unsupported by a manager). At the same time, I have learned some incredible lessons from the situations where a manger didn't swoop in and praise me for some false reason, just to motivate me to carry on. Figuring out how to deal has been a valuable experience for me. I have appreciated managers that encourage me because of who I am but give me feedback on what I could do differently.
This topic kind of intersected with something that I have been thinking about with regard to my dog, Jonas. I know that dogs aren't kids (or vice versa)...I am not someone who buys outfits for their dog or even lets him sleep in the bed (white sheets + hairy black dog = not going to happen in my house). But if we just think about "beings" and how they respond to praise, I can tell you that I have not been the best doggy mommy. You hear different philosophies on dog training and in the interest of disproving old adages, I am going to teach my old dog some new tricks, or at least how to behave himself. Jonas is aggressive toward other dogs and he's missing out on some fun puppy play time because of that. It's my fault...ALL my fault. When I fist got Jonas and he exhibited aggressiveness, I freaked and Jonas could tell. He could tell I was on edge and that made him on edge. At the time, I was reluctant to discipline my poor little pound doggy (I have a soft spot for homeless mutts, what can I say?) and so the aggressiveness issue was never resolved. I've been told more than once that I need a dog whisperer and I am going to get one (or be one...we'll see). I can post more on that in the future.
This is relevant to the topic of praise inflation because it shows, on the simplest level, where trying to remove discipline and disappointment from a "being" can result in poor behavior. The praise becomes the standard and that's not how the world works. Can you imagine animals in the wild if they needed excessive praise? I'm not advocating pack behavior at work (can you imagine?). And frankly, if you were raised with lots and lots of praise without a significant dose of disappointment, a system reset seems unlikely at this point. But often, awareness of the issue is helpful as are some conversations with your manager about what you need from the relationship (hmm, could work in other areas of your life as well, no?) relative to what you can actually expect from the relationship.
On the flip side, I do think that corporations need to be mindful of these "gen Y" folks and their needs, but I worry that focusing too much on this newer-to-the-workforce generation may alienate other workers. It's hard to maintain a balance and have everyone feel good about how they are treated and how they see others being treated. Employees are regularly weighing their contributions relative to their peers (it's human nature, right?) and so engaging an in a little promiscuous rewarding could have negative repercussions on the morale of the rest of the team ("She got rewarded for THAT? We all do that!") and can result in some loss of confidence in the leader. Managers need to figure out what reward opportunities result in the best behavior of the individuals on their team with the least negative fall-out from rewards that are perceived as bull.