Praise, criticism can be effective or not

by David Vergun
U.S. Army

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 25, 2014) -- Like people everywhere, Soldiers appreciate being praised for a job well done. But too often, that praise is scant or insincere, said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Tobin.

Tobin, a master resilience trainer and training and operations non-commissioned officer for the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program, spoke at a Headquarters, Department of the Army Staff Executive Resilience and Performance Training course, Sept. 24.

Why is it so hard for a leader to offer praise when praise is merited -- even a simple pat on the shoulder, or a job well done?

Sometimes, leaders feel they need to project a tough image. Thanking someone for doing a good job might somehow convey a sense of weakness, because as a professional, doing a good job is expected, he said.

As an artilleryman and drill sergeant, Tobin has had first-hand experience in "old-school" Army communications.

When Tobin got his first platoon as a drill sergeant, he said he did a lot of yelling at the recruits because he thought that was the expectation for that position.

But he mellowed out somewhat when he got his next platoon -- after seeking guidance from veteran drill sergeants on how to be more effective -- and found that giving praise can actually boost performance.

Then in 2009, Tobin was selected to become a master resilience trainer. As part of his training, he studied the psychological literature related to human motivation and resilience.

Having come from the "old-school" way of doing things, he said he balked at having to study psychology. But over time, he came around to appreciate just how well resilience training can make Soldiers more effective in their jobs and even in their family lives.

Basically, effective praise does several things, he said. It "demonstrates authenticity -- that you genuinely care -- and, it builds motivation and optimism. People feel validated in the things they're doing." That in turn builds resilient and winning teams.

For praise to be effective, it needs to be sincere, he said. Soldiers just know when someone is doling out insincere praise. It's pretty obvious to them, although it may not be so obvious to the one who is giving it.

Can too much praise turn into ineffective praise, asked a member of the audience in the Pentagon Auditorium where the course was held.

"Yes," Tobin replied.

There comes a point when handing out too much praise makes it less meaningful and heartfelt to the recipients, he said. There's a fine balance between too much and not enough. Soldiers will need to probe to find the sweet spot.

Spoken praise and body-language praise are not the only types of praise there are. Written praise is also important, he said.

Tobin said he's seen too many counseling statements where praise for something is mentioned very briefly but comments on criticism are very long and detailed. That sort of thing can impact careers.

Effective praise, as taught by Army master resilience trainers, has its basis in psychological research, much of it from Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist who has studied people's self-conceptions or mindsets of behavior.

Her studies found that people are not always aware of their own mindset but others can discern it based on their outward behavior. People with more flexible mindsets are more open to growth and change.

Translating that to Army life, a leader who isn't giving his or her Soldiers praise may not even realize it and may not realize the negative impact it's having, but the Soldiers sure do, he said. The Soldiers don't get the feedback they need so they don't know if they're doing things well or not. They also lose their optimism, drive, motivation and resilience.

Just about everyone in the audience had plenty of stories to share about their own dealings with a supervisor or spouse who didn't provide effective praise.

Earlier in his career Tobin said "there was a sergeant major who knew his artillery skills; he knew how to train and lead for the most part. The one thing he didn't do very well at was effective praise."

The Soldiers in his shop worked overtime and weekends at a relentless pace, he said.

"Not once in the 19 months I was there, did he ever praise someone effectively," Tobin recalled. "What it did was create this environment where the people didn't really want to come to work. Because no matter how hard you worked, or how many things you achieved you wouldn't be praised."

On the other hand, he was good at effective criticism, Tobin said, explaining that effective criticism is explaining what specific outcomes or behavior need to be corrected and why, without being overly dramatic.

Effective praise should always be balanced with effective criticism if warranted, he said.

"As a leader, I always made time to sit down with my Soldiers and review what went well over the previous week and what didn't and what improvements could be made."

Tobin said they appreciated that, and strove for improvement.

"It's easy to praise the rock-star Soldiers in your formation, like the ones who score 300s on the [Army Physical Fitness Test]," he said, meaning a perfect score.

But, those who went from 190 to 220 should be praised too, he added. They demonstrated noticeable improvement and if they are praised for that, they might even strive for more.

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