Why Performance Declines After Praise

Generally speaking, it’s better to praise someone for not smoking than warning them about lung cancer. But we typically default to warnings.

When you see a friend smoking, what’s the first thing you say? “You’re going to die of lung cancer if you don’t quit.”

Immediate praise impacts behavior more than threat of future punishment. (The Influential Mind)

Why performance declines after praise:

Daniel Kahneman reports that a flight instructor resisted giving praise to top performers. (Thinking, Fast and Slow)

Kahneman was teaching instructors that praise improves performance better than punishment.

During the training an experienced instructor explained to Kahneman that praise doesn’t work. The instructor rightly noticed that after praising a top performer, performance declined.

The instructor also noticed that when he yelled at poor performers, they improved during their next exercises.

The instructor concluded that yelling works better than praising.

Confusion about praise and punishment:

Suppose you praise today’s top performer. How will they perform tomorrow? Statistically, their performance is likely to deteriorate. You might think, “Praise caused them to ease up.”

Suppose you punish today’s bottom performer. How will they perform tomorrow? Statistically, their performance will improve. You might think, “Punishment works.”

Poor performance is typically followed by improvement regardless of praise or punishment. The only place a poor performer has to go is up. Peak performance typically deteriorates in the short-term.

Don’t assume praise caused peak performers to slack off.

Choose praise:

When it comes to developing skills, immediate praise works better than threat of future punishment.

  1. Make it a daily habit to notice progress.
  2. Praise behaviors you want your team to repeat. Bad behaviors capture your attention. Search for something to praise.
  3. When you point out something that isn’t working, turn toward the future. Focus on behaviors that cause improvement. Threat isn’t enough.

How might leaders make development and improvement more likely?

INVITATION: Join me TODAY (4/23/2018) at 11:30 a.m. EST on Facebook life for a conversation with Jon Acuff!