Written by Naziya O’Reilly

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Praise Be…?

New research suggests that praise can have negative effects on school pupils. Naziya O’Reilly wonders how rave reviews work at work.

praise be

At least a dozen times a day I will utter the words “Who’s a good boy?” “Are you a good boy?” or even “Bad boy…down!” As the devoted owner of rumbustious three-year-old pooch, I can get away with such language. Keep this up in the classroom, however, and I’d be in trouble.

Most educators – and parents – will be familiar with the idea of praising the behaviour not the child. Praise is positive action, right? It seems it’s no longer quite so clear. New research by The Sutton Trust, which is currently making headlines, suggests that the wrong kinds of praise can be harmful to learning. Though designed to encourage and protect low-attaining students, certain praise may actually convey a teacher’s low expectations; meanwhile, responding to failure with sympathy is more likely to reinforce a lack of ability and low self-esteem. Better to respond with anger, say the findings, in order to spark the motivation for success.

This got me thinking about how praise motivates us as adults. Does it encourage and motivate or does it discourage ambition?

Not long ago, I took a temporary admin role outside of teaching in order to return to work – a demotion in terms of authority and skills. In the first few weeks of my new position and while working hard to establish my capability, I received a steady diet of praise from my managers. I was “excellent”, “independent”, “much quicker than my colleagues [in preparing reports]”, and the substantially morale boosting “too good to lose”.

Despite the discomfort I felt in losing my professional influence (let’s ignore the considerable drop in income), this regular diet of approval worked wonders: I felt motivated to give as much as I could to support my colleagues and build experience within the organisation. So much so, that I increasingly desired to remain in what should have been a short-term solution. Indeed, when presented with a fantastic opportunity for career progression in another field, I felt so valued where I was that I had second thoughts about leaving.

I took the fantastic opportunity. But afterwards, examining my motives for seriously thinking about staying, I wondered if all that praise had played a major part in my hesitation. The reality – a downgraded role and the absence of any promotion on the table – had affected my self-esteem. No wonder praise served as self-validation. The realisation shocked me. Was I so pliable that a few congratulatory phrases were all it took for me to keep my head down? Did this have anything to do with being a woman at work?

Findings from the Harvard Business Review of 2013* point to the “insidious effect of praise” on women’s career progression. In a survey of industry energy managers, women who received less criticism at work also received less developmentally challenging assignments than their male equivalents. In another example of the same dynamic, a study of performance evaluations at a Wall Street law firm found that women received more positive comments – “awesome” “terrific”, “well done” – than men, but only 6% of these women (as opposed to 15% of the men) were mentioned as potential partner material.

Dubbed “benevolent sexism” by researchers, this phenomenon views women as inherently in need of sheltering in the workplace. Benevolent sexism substitutes accolades for promotion and leads to women actively lowering their career sights amid an onslaught of low expectations. It also undermines the word “benevolent”.

Praise has its place: I could no more stop praising my dog for pleasing me than I could voice the notion that a pat on the back never works. In the classroom it’s an incredible motivator: used with the right pupil at the right moment, praise can help a wonderful teacher break a destructive cycle of negative behaviour. At work, however, women need more than a few words of congratulation in order to achieve all of our possibilities. We need equality in pay and prospects; we need cooperation, and we need to be known. When I am praised for a job well done, I want to feel it’s a job I’ve been proud to do and not just be told I’m a “good girl”.

*Women in the Workplace: A Research Roundup (2013), Harvard Business Review

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Written by Naziya O’Reilly

Naziya O'Reilly is a teacher, performer and gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast (aged 8). She is currently studying for a philosophy of education PhD at Leeds Trinity University.