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More PsychNotes: Communication

In Praise of Specific Praise
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Many know how to flatter, few know how to praise. Wendell Phillips
Most people know the value of praise, but few people provide it effectively. Providing specific praise can enhance performance and productivity at work. It can improve the quality of personal relationships. It can teach children how to navigate life successfully.

“Great job!” or “I liked your presentation” may be easy praise to give but it is not as effective as specific praise. Instead, “You really helped the team by providing those statistics for the presentation” is more likely to make an impact. A person receiving such praise will not only know their work was appreciated but will know that they were noticed—it's not just empty flattery.

What is the purpose of praise?

1) To create goodwill. People give praise because they want to establish relationships whether it is a friendship or a business association. Praise builds positive regard and a friendly attitude. Others are more likely to respond in kind.

2) To encourage behavior. When people are given reinforcement for something they did they are more likely to engage in the same behavior again. Praise is a form of reinforcement so it tends to encourage desired behavior. This is also why it is not good to praise generally for undesired behavior. For instance, if a boss says “Good job” when the work is substandard, the employee will think that it is acceptable.

If a child is given a trophy for participation, the child comes to believe that no effort beyond participation is necessary. If you want to recognize children when they don't win, at least recognize them for the effort they made. Of course, that takes more work because the amount of effort would need to be evaluated.

3) To teach. When a person tells someone, “I like how you gave examples of the different scenarios during your presentation” it teaches what is meaningful to others. Also, building on praise instructs a person on how to improve: “I liked the examples you gave—giving a greater variety would make it even better.”

If we consider these purposes of praise, you can see why general praise may not be very effective. To some degree, it may generate goodwill, but even then, people often think that it is not very meaningful: “She's just saying that.” General praise doesn't do a good job at all of encouraging behavior. “My boss said I did a good job but I don't know what I did that made a difference. I don't know how to do it again.” And general praise doesn't teach or help improve behavior.

But specific praise means a person took the time and made the effort--they paid attention. When people know they are noticed and their efforts are recognized, they feel appreciated. As a result, they are more likely to strive to gain more such notice.

Components of specific praise

1) Detailed. Specific praise provides a great deal of detail. If you ever notice when people criticize someone, they usually provide substantial detail. This is often what makes criticism effective (unfortunately at making people feel bad and discouraging them). Praise needs to be just as detailed.

2) Precise. The details provided need to be precise. The behavior needs to be named clearly. Telling an athlete “That was a good effort” isn't as precise as saying “I noticed your movement was very fluid and unpredictable.”

3) Believable. When praise is detailed and precise, it is more believable. When you comment on a specific aspect of what someone did, they know you made an effort to pay attention. General praise isn't believable because it could be said to anyone about anything.

Some additional examples

1) “I can see that making the effort to consistently do your math homework has helped your grade."

2) “You showed how much you listened by the probing and specific questions you asked.”

3) “I really appreciate the effort you made helping the new employee feel comfortable by taking him to lunch and introducing him to others.”

4) “I notice that you're working more independently by researching solutions to the problems rather than asking immediately for the answers.”

Note: If you have any good examples to share, please include them in the comment section.

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