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[Teamwork Musings] Is there such a thing as too much positive affirmation?

Edited

We all do it. Affirmation feels good to give and receive.

  • Have you ever clicked on an emoji to react positively to a social post?
  • Have you ever seen someone in an outfit you like and paid them a compliment?
  • Ever celebrate someone when they finish sending a big communication, a website update, a product launch, or achieve a quota?

Now think about the times the opposite happens.

  • You share an article with your team you author and no one responds.
  • You get a radically different haircut or present differently and no one acknowledges the change.
  • You achieve a work milestone and teammates only confirm receipt of the fact that that milestone was hit.

Here's my hot take: affirmation should be given in moderation.

And on many of today's team, it's easy to see when there's not enough recognition, but it's less common to realize when there's too much celebration.

I don't know about y'all, but when I am recognized for work, I associate my efforts with positive feelings. The more recognition, the more I'm fueled to continue to deliver. While that's a strong motivator, it's also a self-worth machine

Like those who crave "likes" on social media to the point where not hitting a certain amount makes them feel bad, I think that too much praise can addict us to that praise. Perhaps a more controversial example, is when I hang out with my nieces and nephews. The little ones might show me a drawing or a dance they made up. In the past, I've immediately cheered them on, even before they've assessed their performance. But what if I delayed my reaction just a little bit? What if I first asked: "how do you feel about your drawing?" Ideally, they would feel good about their work without having to wait to see what I thought about it. And through these repeated actions, maybe I'm training them to look to adults on how to feel about their work.

Sure, it's nice to hear as affirmation, but coworker approval should not be the source of our self-worth.

When it comes to teamwork support and developing others, I wonder if we should be thinking about WHEN we celebrate our teammates and whether we make space for our teammates to share how they feel first. That's just me though. What do you think?

8 comments

All minds fall into two categories; an affirming mind or an inquisitive mind.

Affirmation is a disease of the ego. Why should I care what anyone else thinks. If I am certain that what I have done what I have done to the best of my ability, be it in work, family or among friends then what others think is of no consequence.

 

If I am constantly enquiring then I should be default only get better than myself yesterday. This is enough. It erodes all judgement.

 

Do not respond to this comment either negative or positive.
Be inquisitive!

Like # people like this

I like the idea of being in a state of curiosity. That applies to this discussion and so many others.

I think its important to differentiate when affirmations aim to make someone feel heard (so well needed in this remote work world we live in) and when affirmations are given or perceived as measure of performance.

Moderation in praise empowers and gives space to strength self-criticism, evaluating our performance based on our experience and knowledge, but affirmation may be a good way to make team members feel responded :)

Like # people like this

You're right, @Melissa Castán. I love this comment! Affirmation intended to provide feedback on direction or feel heard...those are potentially more in need as you mentioned.  But, affirmation used more along the lines of transactional praise may not be fulfilling a significant purpose. The praise needs to come from a place of positive evaluation. 

Like # people like this

We use a Slack channel for Kudos, and on our team of 40, there are ~2 kudos given per month. As a group we reserve them for pretty big deal accomplishments, like when our Sr Devs & DevOps collaboratively built a new tool that made a huge difference to our early project momentum, or when a major client communicates how impressed and grateful they are for someone's expertise, or when we close our biggest sales quarter ever.

We're a tight-knit group who are free with our communication of both praise and *ahem* opportunities for improvement one-on-one, but it's also really nice to celebrate things that are good for all of us but maybe wouldn't be obvious to other teams. 

Like Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

I feel that, @Anne Saunders! Atlassian has a kudos system, too, and we make sure that kudos are only given out when teammates go above and beyond (vs confirming receipt of deliverables provided for example).  

Like Anne Saunders likes this

Again, another great discussion topic; thank you, @Christine P_ Dela Rosa

A couple of thoughts: 

  • False praise - When I was a QA team lead, we had a QA Manager who was not experienced in QA. I trained and managed the team and oversaw their daily activities, as well as their successes and challenges. Each morning the manager would come through our area and tell everyone "You're doing a great job!" even though someone may have made an error the previous day or someone else was struggling through an issue. He didn't know what they were doing or whether they were actually doing a poor job. His blanket praise came across as false and unmotivating since it was insincere. 

  • Recognition and encouragement - "Catch people doing something right." This old adage is something I still believe in. When you catch someone doing something right, you want to let them know their work is seen. This acknowledgement reinforces positive behavior. It lets them know this is the right thing to be doing; keep going! If no one ever notices what you're doing, you start to doubt if you're doing the right thing. 
    Personal example: I've been with my company six years. I've never had a performance review. I've never set performance goals with any of my several managers over the years. I don't know what my target is and since I don't know what it is, I don't know if I'm hitting it. When someone recognizes/acknowledges my work, I learn that I'm aiming for the right target. I'm motivated to keep doing what I know is adding value as a result. 
Like # people like this

Great topic!! @Christine P_ Dela Rosa Thank you. 

As a "new here" and without a team I lean towards @Rose Eliff and @Melissa Castán points of view.

I believe that "every constructive criticism starts with praise" and acknowledgement helps to build up a confidence and recognise work done correctly. If it's not sincere, as it usually is on social media sites, it's usually felt. Both are fools, those who crave it too much and those who give it too much. Like a double-edge sword. It cuts either way. If it's done wisely with balance and moderation, it can be a useful tool. 

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Yes!!! @Rose Eliff and @Evangeline Black there's definitely a matter of ensuring that praise is warranted. It doesn't help anyone if it is not earned.

What do you think about timing of encouragement? Sometimes I wonder if it's important to wait for teammates to express how they feel before we give praise. 

Like Anne Saunders likes this

I believe encouragement is different to affirmation or acknowledgment and praise is the end result @Christine P_ Dela Rosa .

Praise comes from results, results come from encouragement therefore the encouragement should always be given but if it's delayed... then the growth and progress of your teammates or family members might be stumped. Would you really want that? 

Here, I would agree with @Graham Twine . As long as we maintain inquisitive mind, doesn't matter who thinks what. 

Let's be inquisitive! We are already better than yesterday 😊

 

Like # people like this

@Christine P_ Dela Rosa I was just watching a video from a head of department at another tech company talking about a recent experience with feedback. He had been planning to praise a certain team's product launch at a department lunch, but through a chance conversation prior to the lunch, he asked a team member what they were proudest of about the launch.

He learned that the team was not very excited about the product, because a longer term, larger project had been scrapped to make room for it. The older, scrapped project laid a lot of the groundwork for the new thing, and the new thing didn't feel like such a big deal to the team members themselves. He ended up glad he hadn't fawned over the new product, and instead, he got to call out the team's ability to be flexible, use their resources, and pivot when the need arose. 

So yeah - timing, sentiment, appropriateness - it's a balancing act to be sure!

Like # people like this

Another important point about praise: It should be specific. 

  • Not just a broad brushstroke, generalized praise:
    "You're doing a great job!" 

  • But specific praise that says one's actions are seen and appreciated: 
    "Your presentation yesterday really helped the team to better understand the project goals. Great job!" 
Like # people like this
Darryl Lee Atlassian Team Mar 21, 2022

Oh wow, this is a great sharing!!

I never noticed that sometimes we might put too much attention on every piece of information or things we shared in the group to seek feedback.

This turns into an unhealthy cycle and expections.

Thanks for sharing this!

Like # people like this

A balance of time and usage for everything, indeed!

Srinatha T Atlassian Team Mar 23, 2022

Thanks for sharing this. 

Like Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

@Anne Saunders you've been selected as this week's March Musing blanket giveaway recipient. I'll reach out to you for shipping details :)

Thanks to everyone for such insightful notes!

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