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Addicted To Praise

The young man took his place behind the lectern, preparing to address the graduating class. He had earned the right to make this speech by having the best grade point average over the last four years.

In addition to being the valedictorian he was graduating with academic honors. So were two thirds of the members of his class.

It's not just this high school. I checked around a bit and found that grades appear higher and there are more "honors" graduates, even though official standards don't seem to have changed much.

And it's not just high school. At Princeton, in 2003, 47 percent of the grades were A's.

William Strauss and Neil Howe identified the generational cycle and its language in their classic 1991 book, Generations. They defined four kinds of generations, one of which they called "Civic." Members of a Civic generation "grow up as increasingly protected youth."

The valedictorian and his classmates are members of a Civic generation variously called Generation Y or the Millennial Generation. And they're showing up in workplaces everywhere. They're the children of the Baby Boomers.

Protection for them has taken some strange forms. Leave it to my generation, the Baby Boomers, to come up with beliefs about praise and reward that are both anti-establishment and result in some really dumb actions.

One belief is that no one should be a "loser." That leads to sports leagues where kids play soccer, but no one keeps score.

Or how about the corollary belief: everyone should be a winner? That gives us other sports leagues where everyone gets a trophy just for playing. Parents pay for them before the year begins.

And there's the belief that no one, especially my darling child, should ever hear anything negative about what they do because self-esteem is the most important thing. That leads to schools suggesting that teachers throw away their red pens so they don't intimidate the students.

Some observers think all the protection and praise has turned this generation into a bunch of rampant narcissists. They use psychological tests to make their point.

Professor Jane Twenge, of San Diego State University, published a study earlier this year where she administered a standardized narcissistic personality inventory to 16,475 college students. She found that the average college student in 2006 was 30 percent more narcissistic than the average student in 1982.

That's one way to judge whether these young people are narcissistic. But if you look at how the members of this generation act, you might come to a different conclusion.

They have lower rates of just about every destructive set of behavior that you can imagine, including crime, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse. On the plus side, they volunteer time to charitable causes. The Points of Light Foundation reports that the number of people aged 16 to 24 who volunteer 100 or more hours a year has risen nearly 18 percent since 2002 according to Census data.

This is a hard working generation, but they are showing up at your workplace with a high need for praise, an expectation for rewards, and not much experience dealing with negative feedback. That presents a challenge and, predictably, there have been some bizarre responses.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one company has a designated "celebrations assistant." Part of the assistant's job is to throw confetti at employees and distribute balloons. This is simply silly.

But ignoring bad behavior and poor performance is not silly. It's damaging to both productivity and morale. You can't build a good team, or help an individual grow and develop if you never tell them anything that makes them uncomfortable or anything they don't want to hear.

So what do you do, if you're a manager? You're probably going to have to distribute more praise than you've been used to. The new generation entering the workplace will expect it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most managers don't praise enough. According to Gallup research, less than a third of American workers can strongly agree that they've received praise from a supervisor within the last seven days.

Praise is one of the key tools for creating engagement. It's a key tool for helping individuals develop by encouraging them to try things and to continue activities that may be difficult at first. But not just any praise will do.

You have to deliver effective praise. Praise a specific behavior or performance. Praise close to the action that earned it. Keep the magnitude of the praise in line with the magnitude of achievement.

You must learn to give negative feedback. There are techniques for this. I outline some of them in my book, Performance Talk. It will be more important than ever for you to deliver negative feedback in human and humane ways.

Remember that we're talking about bright people here. They'll know that you're gaming them if you praise every little thing or if you offer undeserved praise. They know who the real achievers are.

Remember those soccer leagues where there was no official score? Odds are pretty good that the players kept score in their heads. The parents might be fooled, but the kids aren't.

And think about our valedictorian and his classmates. They didn't need to check out the ropes around each others' necks to know who the smart kids and the real achievers were.

Submitted by:

Wally Bock

Wally Bock helps organizations deal with the challenges of massive Boomer retirements. His latest book is Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership (http://www.performancetalk.com/). This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog (http://blog.threestarleadership.com/).




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