The Cultural Consequences of Offering Endless Quantities of Meaningless Praise

In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work (subscription required), Jeffrey Zaslow writes:

You, You, You — you really are special, you are! You’ve got everything going for you. You’re attractive, witty, brilliant. “Gifted” is the word that comes to mind.
Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking — by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools that used to name one “student of the month” and these days name 40.
Now, as this greatest generation grows up, the culture of praise is reaching deeply into the adult world. Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit.
Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up…
Certainly, there are benefits to building confidence and showing attention. But some researchers suggest that inappropriate kudos are turning too many adults into narcissistic praise-junkies. The upshot: A lot of today’s young adults feel insecure if they’re not regularly complimented.
America’s praise fixation has economic, labor and social ramifications. Adults who were overpraised as children are apt to be narcissistic at work and in personal relationships, says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. Narcissists aren’t good at basking in other people’s glory, which makes for problematic marriages and work relationships, she says.
Her research suggests that young adults today are more self-centered than previous generations. For a multiuniversity study released this year, 16,475 college students took the standardized narcissistic personality inventory, responding to such statements as “I think I am a special person.” Students’ scores have risen steadily since the test was first offered in 1982. The average college student in 2006 was 30% more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.
Praise Inflation
Employers say the praise culture can help them with job retention, and marriage counselors say couples often benefit by keeping praise a constant part of their interactions. But in the process, people’s positive traits can be exaggerated until the words feel meaningless…
But many young married people today, who grew up being told regularly that they were special, can end up distrusting compliments from their spouses…
Workers under 40, he says, require far more stroking. They often like “trendy, name-brand merchandise” as rewards, but they also want near-constant feedback. “It’s not enough to give praise only when they’re exceptional, because for years they’ve been getting praise just for showing up,” he says…
In fact, throughout history, younger generations have wanted praise from their elders. As Napoleon said: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” But when it comes to praise today, “Gen Xers and Gen Yers don’t just say they want it. They are also saying they require it,” says Chip Toth, an executive coach based in Denver. How do young workers say they’re not getting enough? “They leave,” says Mr. Toth…
Young adults aren’t always eager for clear-eyed feedback after getting mostly “atta-boys” and “atta-girls” all their lives, says John Sloop, a professor of rhetorical and cultural studies at Vanderbilt University…
At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, marketing consultant Steve Smolinsky teaches students in their late 20s who’ve left the corporate world to get M.B.A. degrees. He and his colleagues feel handcuffed by the language of self-esteem, he says. “You have to tell students, ‘It’s not as good as you can do. You’re really smart, and can do better.'”
Mr. Smolinsky enjoys giving praise when it’s warranted, he says, “but there needs to be a flip side. When people are lousy, they need to be told that.” He notices that his students often disregard his harsher comments. “They’ll say, ‘Yeah, well…’ I don’t believe they really hear it.”
In the end, ego-stroking may feel good, but it doesn’t lead to happiness, says Prof. Twenge, the narcissism researcher, who has written a book titled Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable than Ever Before. She would like to declare a moratorium on “meaningless, baseless praise,” which often starts in nursery school…

Zaslow’s article generated quite a bit of reactions, which led him to write a subsequent article entitled In Praise of Less Praise (subscription required):

…[M]anagement consultant Jerry Pounds…built a lucrative career advising companies on ways to praise employees, especially younger ones, who grew up bombarded with soccer trophies, parental applause and stroking at school. Mr. Pounds figures he trained 50,000 supervisors, encouraging them to pass out cartloads of prizes, plaques and praise-engraved knickknacks.
Then several nurses who received toasters as incentives told him they were insulted. “I got into nursing to care for patients,” one said, “not so I’d be rewarded with toasters.”
Mr. Pounds says he came to some realizations: Unearned praise is condescending and destructive, incentives become entitlements and “we’ve ruined our kids” by celebrating mediocrity.
Mr. Pounds contacted me in response to my recent Weekend Journal article…The article drew attention from bloggers, talk-radio hosts, and a slew of emailing readers. Advice was sharp:
Rain on their parades: Many argued that to counterbalance our praise culture, young people need reality slaps. David Dumpe, a professor at Kent State University, now begins each semester by asking students: “How many of your parents raised you by saying you can be anything you want to be?” Two-thirds raise their hands, he says. He then asks: “Do you realize that’s a bunch of baloney?”
In Iowa, a teacher tells incoming seventh-graders: “Your entire life you have heard from parents that you are wonderful — the center of the universe. It’s not true. You are not wonderful. You are one of many.” In part because of his refreshing bluntness, this teacher is beloved by students, a colleague writes…
Maintain perspective: One reader pointed me to a storied moment in the career of conductor Otto Klemperer. He never praised his orchestra, until one day, pleased with a rehearsal, he uttered a curt “good.” His stunned musicians burst into applause. The conductor tapped his baton on his music stand, silencing them. “Not that good,” he said.
Ban fake back-patting: Mr. Pounds argues that people “know when they’re being worked,” and if a supervisor is a jerk, giving him training in meaningless-praise techniques will only lead underlings to consider him a jerk with new tricks. “People want to know how they’re doing,” he says. “Don’t sugarcoat it. Just give them the damn data.”…
Your kids are on to you: Readers wrote about soccer leagues that don’t keep score to avoid hurt feelings; so the kids keep score in their heads. And parents have to pay “trophy fees” before sports seasons even start. Kids know these trophies are bought and not earned.
Several readers sent me dialogue from the 2004 animated film “The Incredibles.” There’s a scene in which the superhero mom tells her son, “Everyone’s special!” The boy mutters: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

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