Cracking the Culture Code

with Kim Malone Scott

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Giving praise can go as badly wrong as criticism.

Kim Malone Scott

CEO Coach, Management Manager, Author

Lessons Learned

The reward for great work is often more great work.

What people really want to do at work is grow.

When a$$h0les praise, people are left feeling unhappy and belittled.

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Lesson: Cruel Empathy with Kim Malone Scott

Step #2 Praise: Giving praise can go as badly wrong as criticism

You would think that praising somebody would be easy but I can say I've seen it go just as badly wrong as criticism. The reason is really for the same reason that you don't want to go to somebody and say, "You're stupid." You don't want to go to somebody and say, "You're smart." It's not very specific. It's not very clear. They don't know what to do about it. And they don't know how to do more of it. And furthermore, if they screw up next time, then all of sudden you're sort of saying now, "You're stupid because you screwed up." So you want to be very specific with praise as well as with criticism. The worst case that I've ever seen is if you remember Hurricane Katrina, when President Bush said to the head of FEMA, "Heck of a job, Brownie." Everybody knew he was doing a terrible job. Bush was just trying to be nice. He was sort of being cruelly empathetic. But in fact, there's a video of Brown saying that was the worst thing that ever happened in his career, that praise from Bush. I think Carol Dweck explains the role of brutal honesty and praise best. She says if you give your kid a math assignment and they get it right just like that. The worst thing you can do is say is, "You're so good at math." The right thing to say, according to Carol Dweck is, "Oh, I'm sorry I wasted your time. Let me give you something that's more challenging." So in a sense, I think at work the reward for great work is more great work and people sort of laugh about that. And sometimes that might not feel like the best reward but really what people want to do at work is to grow. And so when somebody does something great, giving them an even bigger challenge can sometimes feel maybe a little brutal but it's the right thing to do to help people grow. I think one of the hardest things about management is that most of us have to undo everything we've been told since we were very, very young. So the most common is, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all." Now all of a sudden, it's your job to say it and to say it clearly. And if the person isn't hearing it, to say it even more clearly, so clearly that it sometimes feels brutal. I think overcoming that is the single hardest thing about management. And also reformulating your ideas about what is kind and what is nice, because they're very different. And any time you're being nice, there's a problem. And that's also not what we're taught. And one of the things that is funniest to me about this is that even though I know this and I spend my days at work teaching people this, and I believe it very firmly, and I'm writing at night a book about it, I still find myself falling in the trap of saying to my children, "That's not nice." I don't think I've ever said to them, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all," but I've come close. So these are deeply ingrained things and overcoming them is hard. How does an asshole praise somebody? Leaving them feeling really unhappy and belittled and being totally unclear. Well, I'll give you an example. When I was in high school, I had an internship at a bank. A senior person at the bank walked up to me and he said, "I hear you're going to Princeton. I didn't know they let pretty girls into Princeton." I wanted to be praised for my intelligence and the good job I was doing, not my looks. I think he actually probably thought he was flattering me but I don't know. I thought he was a jerk.

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