Not just any praise worked. It was more effective if praise was truthful and related in real time to a specific event. It also had to be sincere and credible to have an impact.
I'm told, too, that a video analysis of the practice sessions run by John Wooden, arguably the greatest coach of all time, showed that 87% of his comments were positive reinforcement. Hmm, about a 5:1 ratio.
By the way--and maybe (or maybe not) a bit off our topic today--it was John Guttman in the 1990s who extended the research to married couples, showing that marriages were considerably more stable if there were five times as many positive feelings and interactions between husband and wife as there were negative. Guttman termed this the "magic ratio."
By contrast, I know of many leaders who intentionally run their companies as "low praise zones." When I was in the state government, one of my colleagues did so for his agency. He berated people when they made errors (sometimes calling them late at night) and would seldom, if ever, give them praise for a job well done. Nonetheless, many of his managers adored him, were loyal to him, and did every thing possible to make him satisfied. The agency, by the way, was successful in its mission in many respects.
It appeared to me that these managers were engaged in a relationship pattern equivalent to that of a codependent abused spouse. I've since seen it in other settings.
In the hospital world, for example, I've seen a chief of surgery who behaved in a similar fashion to my government colleague. Nary a kind word would come out of his mouth. He ruled with fear, anger, and disdain. And yet his underlings--whether attending physicians or residents--would suck it up and take it, almost as a badge of honor. They remained intensely loyal to him. The surgery department, by the way, was quite good.
In the music world, I've seen a conductor of the same ilk. Sarcasm and mean-spirited gossip were his weapons of choice. People who were the conductor's favorites on one day would discover that, on another, they were in the dog house. And yet, as above, the members of the ensemble were remarkably loyal. The music production of this group, by the way, was excellent.
I'd like to say that the 5:1 ratio is the way to go to produce a team of engaged and creative individuals best suited to carry out the mission of an organization. It troubles me to think that the Commander Queeg approach I've just summarized might work as well. All I know is that it would make me extremely uncomfortable to behave in such a way, and so I've tended to attract managers who prefer my approach and who have accomplished great things in places I've led.
If you are a leader in an organization, where do you stand on the spectrum of 5:1 versus 1:5?
* Kirkhart, Robert; Kirkhart, Evelyn (1972). "The Bruised Self: Mending in the Early Years". In Yamamoto, Kaoru. The Child and His Image: Self Concept in the Early Years. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-12571-5.