Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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How Often Are You Passing On Praise?

On Friday as I was waiting for my flight back to Australia from New Zealand, an email popped into my inbox from our daughter’s 6th Grade teacher. The title simply had our daughter’s name in it.

If you don’t have children let me explain to you the thought process when you get an email like this:

  1. Oh no, what’s happened…?

  2. The teacher wouldn’t email if it wasn’t serious

  3. I wonder if she’s done something to someone or someone has done something to her?

  4. (If it’s the former) I hope she’s ok?

  5. (If it’s the latter) What conversation are we going to have to have and how will we handle it so that she knows that she has our love and support, but also that (behaviorally) one or two things may need to change?

  6. What’s the teacher going to think of us, as parents?

  7. What are we doing wrong?

All of those thoughts run through your mind in about 20 seconds. And yes, most of them aren’t rational. And yes, our daughter’s welfare and health is always the most important thing. And yes, I should just have opened the email to find out. 

But still, I just couldn’t help but think the worst because in the eight years both of our children have been at school, we’ve never received an email or a phone call to share some good news. We’ve never had the joy of opening a message that tells us about how wonderfully behaved our kids are and how they’re a credit to us. Nothing. In eight years. We know that they’ve had good days because they’ve told us about them. Oh and we don’t dread parent teacher conferences or end of year reports, so that’s good too. But the emails. Well, they’re never good news.

They’ve all been ‘lost his/her temper’, ‘disrupted his/her class, ‘hasn’t completed their work’… and so on. Each email was like opening a Howler in Harry Potter. So I think it’s perfectly rational for me to expect bad news. 

But upon opening the email (with one eye closed and leaning back from my screen) it wasn’t bad news at all. It was the very antithesis of bad news in fact, it was good news and lots of it.

It was all ‘wonderful’ this, ‘thoughtful’ that, and ‘an inspiration’ the other. At which point I sat upright in my chair, swelled with pride and beamed from ear to ear. I thought it was fantastic that the teacher had taken the time at the end of her very busy day of educating more than 20 children, and the dramas that come with that, to send us a paragraph of praise.

I felt guilty for expecting the worst and then wondered whether I’d spent enough time passing on praise, giving positive feedback? I remember the tough conversations, because no-one wants to have those, but the praise? Not so much.

And of course, it doesn’t take much time or effort to do it. Praising a behaviour that you’ve seen demonstrated is easy to do. Praising the attitude or effort of a colleague can take mere moments.

It’s not a generational thing either. It’s a human thing. At our core, we all want to do the best that we can and to be acknowledged for that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 17 and just starting out in work or 67 and working for yourself, we all want to know when we’ve behaved in a manner that sets the tone for others or that we met expectations in a way that was appreciated by the people around you. 

Taking the time to praise the effort or behaviour demonstrated (rather than, say,  intelligence) greatly enhances self confidence and encourages a growth mindset – I’m a great fan of  Dr Carol Dweck who has written extensively about it here

It feels good to pass on praise too! I bet the teacher really enjoyed writing the email knowing the feeling that it would give us.

In a world seemingly dominated by bad news, any kind of praise will be welcomed with surprise and delight. How often are you passing on praise?