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Working around the Praise Paradox

In an effort to utilize more positive reinforcement as a parent, I'll compliment my child when I notice healthy behaviors.

Unfortunately, there have been times where I broke her concentration. Knowing that I'm paying attention, she's now trying to impress me instead of focusing on the Lego world she's building. And she grows impatient or frustrated whereas before she was content and focused despite a setback.

Such is the compliment, or praise paradox. This is when praise backfires because it creates additional burdens and stressors on the receiver. Instead of simply accepting the compliment and moving on, they now feel pressure to perform.

I felt this struggle myself recently. There was a stretch of many weeks this summer where I received compliments on every blog post I published. It was validating and encouraging. I was pleased knowing my writing had a positive impact on other peoples' lives. I don't always hear from readers, so it was nice to get the feedback.

Then, a colleague that I respect casually mentioned in an email how much he was enjoying my posts lately. Because "they feel more 'targeted and focused.'" And suddenly I felt the pressure.

I wondered, "How in the world can I keep this up? I didn't realize I was doing anything different."

I started to question and doubt myself. None of my ideas felt good enough. Focused enough. Targeted enough.

The feelings and thoughts came along with physical sensations in my body. I felt constriction in my jaw and a sinking feeling in my stomach along with buzzing.

I've learned that these sensations tend to cause my brain to freakout, and I go into over-thinking mode.

When I'm over-thinking I become disconnected from my heart. I'm skilled at coming up with completely rational and totally opposing arguments depending on my mood. This makes it nearly impossible to make decisions because either no option seems right or they all seem perfect.

In these instances, my thinking brain makes everything harder. My thoughts are so overwhelming that my tendency has been to freeze. I'm like the bunny outside my front door that's hunkering down pretending to be a rock hopping a predator won't notice me.

I doubt my feelings have been noticeable to you, my loyal readers. But I’m sharing because I hope getting a glimpse of my inner world enables the wholehearted leader in you to prevail.

Have you ever worked with a high performer that you praised, only to find the quality of their work dip in the weeks afterward?

This is a dynamic I’ve seen unfold with clients before.

One time, a client lamented, “She was a star performer. I could always count on her. And now I’m not only worried about meeting the deadlines on this project. I’m wondering if she’s the right person for the job. It throws a wrench in everything.”

When this happens, I encourage curiosity first and foremost. “I hear your concerns. Rather than jumping to conclusions, what if you had a conversation with her about your thoughts and see what her perspective is?”

A wholehearted leader approaches such conversations committed to candor and with care. Showing a deep belief in the person and a desire to best support them however possible.

It turned out that my client’s employee had received lavish praise at an all staff meeting earlier which made her uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the attention that she struggled with. It was the vagueness of the praise, she didn’t know what it meant or how to ensure she continued to ‘exceed expectations.’

Before that encounter she was just doing her job in the way that made sense to her. Now she was questioning herself every step of the way.

It might be shocking to acknowledge that effectively giving positive feedback can be tricky. It’s not only important to consider how it’s delivered but it’s also critical to consider what’s being said.

Specificity helps make positive feedback more grounded in action and less connected to identity.

Compliments like, You're so smart. You're a go getter. You have a great work ethic. You're a star performer. All make the ego temporarily happy. It feels so good, until we don't know if we are living up to those words. Then it creates a sense of pressure and expectation.

"Would someone smart make this mistake?"

Imposter syndrome sneaks in. "If I really had a great work ethic, I would be doing more right now."

"I'm not the person they think I am. What'll happen when they find out I'm a fake?"

This is when a compliment triggers a threat response. We might start fighting ourselves by ruminating. And then become paralyzed with fear. Which perpetuates a vicious cycle of never good enough reinforced by our doubt filled efforts.

A wholehearted leader recognizes the importance and sensitivity of compliments. They seek to understand what makes team members feel valued and appreciated. And intentionally offer specificity when sharing praise.

My client was able to clarify with his team member how she exceeded expectations. When one of their customers raised concerns, she took the time to really understand what they were. Then, she coordinated with the rest of the team to adapt the project plan to address their concerns. She did this while staying on track with delivery and maintaining boundaries to not risk scope creep.

Offering compliments conscientiously and with specificity is like adding fuel for the marathon of work. It helps the receiver stretch and grow in new ways while leaning on what’s working well.

And when compliments backfires, it warrants some reflection and conversation. Whether that's privately, like I did in order to interrupt my own fear response and reconnect with my heart. Or like my client did with his employee.

Getting curious, and being open to learn from the experience is the best gift any of us can receive.

For me, writing is more easeful when I let go of fitting into a certain mold or trying to sound just right. I don’t know if I’m continuing to offer more targeted and focused blogs, but I do know I’m writing from my heart. And in doing so, I’m learning as I go, which makes it beneficial for me. I hope it’s beneficial for you too!

Want to reconnect with your heart? Join me for a purposeful pause at a Wholehearted Leader Recharge session, where I'll guide you on evidence-based techniques for lowering stress, improving focus and enhancing wellbeing.

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