Behavioral Psychology

Tell People When They Are Doing a Good Job

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Almost all of us take on the role of ‘trainer’ in some capacity, whether it’s as a parent, teacher, boss, or coach. Yet most of us are woefully unversed in the rules of behavioral psychology, with no idea of what the actual mechanisms are that we’re using to get results.

One of the major mistakes many of us make is to start out with the expectation that the behaviors we want should be considered a given, so we let these behaviors pass by without remark, instead focusing on instances where our pupil makes a mistake. In the simplest possible language, it’s that we don’t tell people when they’re doing a good job, we only tell them when they’re doing a bad job. We think the best route to a desired end is by correcting problems.

There are myriad reasons why we let perfect opportunities to heap well-deserved praise upon our subjects pass us by without remark. Maybe we think we’d be spoiling them, or that they’d be tempted to think the job is done and that they don’t need to try anymore, or maybe we just don’t know how to do it because of our own upbringing. But whatever your reason for withholding praise, it’s completely unjustified from a behavioral point of view. Praise is rocket fuel in the training world, one of the most powerful motivators for a subject, and the best way I know of to shape behaviors without any of the negative side-effects like shame, sadness, anger, or frustration that are almost always associated with criticism.

Praise doesn’t work when it’s inauthentic or incommensurate with the situation, but that’s only because it doesn’t qualify as a positive reinforcement in these cases and therefore has no predictable influence on future behavior. If you want to make praise work for you, it’s got to be in the moment so that your subject knows beyond doubt which specific behavior it is tied to. This was something I learned from one of my mentors in the counseling setting years ago when I was working with kids, where he instructed me to find specific things I liked and to tell the kids in the moment when I saw these behaviors.

This kind of validation makes everyone feel great and it makes the trait or behavior you are praising much more likely to occur in the future. Most of us are desperate to know how to act and just as importantly how we are perceived by others, but we’re also desperately afraid of finding out we don’t measure up. But we’re all multifaceted, we are all a mix of negative and positive traits. No matter who your subject is, if you can let go of your stingy, critical attitude you will find a host of positive qualities that you can authentically comment upon. Tell people when they are doing a good job, don’t let these perfect shaping opportunities pass you by, and they will be much more likely to keep doing a good job in the future