Mårten Westberg
2012 01 25

Are we feedback junkies?

88% of Americans surveyed by the U.S. Department of Labor cite lack of acknowledgment as their main problem at work.

Jesper Juul, the Danish child psychologist claims that precisely this is a side effect of the American school of child rearing, dating back to the likes of Dr. Spock (the child psychologist, not the guy with the pointy ears).  American parents learned to shower their kids in praise: “Wow, that’s a spectacular painting Joe!” and “Fantastic” are indeed often heard in response to age appropriate scribbles. Jesper Juul claims that this causes two side effects: an exaggerated ego and praise dependence.

For the last 20some years, we at Netsurvey have been part of the mission to teach managers the value of positive feedback, or praise. Our research overwhelmingly support that view.  We apply the pattern discovered in the 1980’s by scholars looking at positive marriages where positive signals outweigh the negative signals by a factor of five to one. We also supporters of the cognitive behavioral school that proves over and over again that praise is the way that behavior is molded.

Lately, however, I have personally begun to doubt that this is the whole truth on the subject. A very successful customer of Netsurvey recently proposed an entirely different view. He suggests recruiting people that do not need praise; people that feel good about their work simply by knowing they are doing a good job.

Do you see the connection to Jesper Juul? Could the need to know how well I am doing be an effect of all the praise I got as a child? Is there a higher developmental level where I could produce top quality work day after day, year after year, alone in a forest cabin?

If there are self motivated people like that out there, would that allow executives to focus entirely on “hard business” issues? I think we can all agree that an organization of self motivated people would have a rather significant advantage. For one thing it would not need as many managers. It would also be well equipped for a world where a manager may have her direct reports spread over several continents.

PS:
I am intentionally simplifying Jesper Juuls message here. Jesper Juul simply wants parents to understand there are many ways besides praise to reinforce a positive behavior. Paying interest is one. Praise is just the easiest way, which is why it is possibly overused.

Cognitive Behavioral training (and OBM) has also long recognized that repeated verbal praise gradually loses its value, as does any other reinforcer that is used over and over again. Behavioral training has produced methods to avoid that inflation, methods that any manager can use as well.