BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO
12:59 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

In Praise Of Faint Praise

What motivates people to succeed? Historian Nancy Koehn takes a look at a new study examining the motivations of West Point graduates.
What motivates people to succeed? Historian Nancy Koehn takes a look at a new study examining the motivations of West Point graduates.
Credit West Point The U.S. Military Academy / Flickr Creative Commons

Are you ready to read the most breathtakingly intelligent, lucidly written, expertly researched, and profoundly life-changing article of your entire day? Perhaps of your entire life?

Well, this isn't it.

At least we're self-aware. Which, as a recent New Yorker article points out, is more than can be said for many children who have been on the receiving end of too much unabashedly bloated praise from the adults in their lives. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the article suggests, inflating children with praise doesn't make them perform better -- it actually makes them less self-assured, more afraid of failure, and less willing to tackle difficult tasks. (In other words, telling little Sarah she's the most unique and talented snowflake that's ever existed will not, in fact, make her a better ice skater.)

So, what actually motivates people to succeed? As Harvard historian Nancy Koehn explains, it's a question that's been the subject of debate for centuries, from Plato and Socrates's musings on how to impel man to a higher plane of existence to Frank Gilbreth and Frederick Winslow Taylor's treatises on how to compel man to plain work. Often, it's assumed that the most effective encouragement comes in the form of "carrots and sticks" -- external motivators like monetary incentives  or, possibly, a choice nugget of inflated praise. 

But new research suggests the carrot is rotten. A recent study of 11,000 West Point graduates found that cadets who were motivated by intrinsic factors, like wanting to become great military leaders, did extremely well. On the other hand, cadets who were motivated by external factors -- prestige, finding a job after graduation, the promise of high pay -- did, comparatively, worse. 

In other words, "carrots and sticks" alone don't always work. That, Koehn says, should be enough to encourage us to reexamine practices like providing monetary incentives for students -- and it should also influence what we tell our children when they're looking for career advice. Big salaries and hefty bonuses are nice, she points out, but eventually it can be tough to haul yourself out of bed every morning if that's all that's bringing you to the office each day.

"Tell your children: do what you love, connect to an organization that's aligned with the road you see yourself traveling on from your stronger self, from your internal compass," Koehn advises.

She continues: "It's going to be a lot clearer and you're going to go in with a lot less conflict and cognitive dissonance in your head if you feel aligned, in a real sense, with what your organization is up to."

And hold the praise.

For more expert advice from Nancy Koehn on how to fine-tune your praising policies, tune in to her full interview on Boston Public Radio below.

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