We had some press coverage in the UK recently about the negative effects on children of unwarranted praise. It found that children who were given praise for average, below standard work, actually developed lower work standards. In the TV interviews that accompanied the story it was clear that these children also tended to know that the praise was unwarranted and so it devalued the whole process. This mirrored similar findings in business; that praise should only be given for significant achievements and by someone you respect.
We have observed some cultural differences between praise giving in the UK and USA. In the UK, praise needs to be given quite sparingly and only when warranted. In fact, it can often be seen as sarcastic or a joke. In the US we observe a much higher level of giving of praise and expectation of receiving it.
Many years ago, during my corporate career, I was asked to introduce a training program to Europe from the USA on “itemized response”. In this technique, we were trained to say three positive things before we gave any negative feedback. I didn’t think this would translate very well into some of my European markets. My American boss insisted, so I organized the pilot in the Netherlands where I was sure they would get plenty of feedback!
I vividly remember, after the American trainer introduced the process, the first question raised from one of the Dutch participants, “so when I want to tell someone the truth, first I have to think of three lies?” The rest of the program didn’t go well and the idea of exporting it to Europe quietly died.
I’m perfectly aware that my views may also be colored by my own cultural background. I am from the northern county of the UK, called Yorkshire, where people are famously undemonstrative. There is an old story of a Yorkshire couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. When the wife asks why in 50 years since they were married her husband has never said that he loved her, he replies “I told you then, if the situation changes I will let you know.”
So as international managers, we may need to learn to moderate the level of praise we give and how we give it to different audiences. I believe that sincerity, respect and giving feedback when it’s really warranted probably travel everywhere.