The Power of Descriptive Praise, and How to Offer It
This is an idea which may be familiar to more than a few of us: You are 12 years old, competing in the school sports team, struggling to make yourself noticed among players who may be a little more skilful than you but who cannot match your work rate and tenacity. Your big chance finally comes - you get the nod in a key game. You work your socks off, putting what you have learned into practice and tempering it with the heart and dedication you have always displayed.
After winning the game, you approach someone whose opinion really matters to you - a coach, a parent, an older sibling, someone you consider a leader – and they give you a simple 'well done'.
You are deflated. You had wanted so badly for them to notice the nuances of your performance, to pick up on the specifics of what you did well and then to discuss that with you. Instead, the praise was just too general - it was praise which someone could have given even if they'd been reading a newspaper or chatting with friends for most of the game, or even if they hadn't attended the game at all.
This is evaluative praise; praise which is broad and non-specific, and provides no constructive or instructive analysis. It may be delivered with the utmost sincerity, but it will still fall somewhat short of the mark. And this is true of any situation - whether at school, in business, or within a family unit - we need to offer more than mere evaluative praise if we are to truly lead and if we are to nurture the leaders of tomorrow.
Descriptive praise is far more effective. Imagine the same situation, but rather than receiving a prosaic 'well done', you were told about specific things you did well, precise pieces of feedback on the strong points of your performance and your game. Imagine how much more upbeat and cared-about you would feel.
Great leaders - in all walks of life - harness this power and wield it as they affect positive changes within their respective organisations or structures. In a business environment, leaders use this to shape the behaviours of their team, to support team development, and to secure the fulfilment of business objectives, building the right sort of culture within the organisation.
In schools, in family homes, within community groups - any place in which leaders can be found - this sort of descriptive praise can be deployed to create authentic connections between leaders and their teams. It is up to us to move beyond the evaluative and commit ourselves to descriptive praise and feedback.
Margaret Bell, AM - Founder and CEO of Chain Reaction Foundation.