• Sean Lewis

Praise as a Moral Imperative


The greatest success a mentor can impart on the mentee is confidence. Not knowledge.


Yes, knowledge often leads to confidence, but 1) knowledge is always partial (as in “the more I know the more I realize how much I have left to learn”), and 2) knowledge without the confidence to apply it is useless.


Confidence is not something that can be taught, and it is most frequently built through the overcoming of adversities. Absent true adversity, however, confidence must then be nurtured through connection and praise. A few weeks ago, I was impressed by section from an article by the Farnam Street Blog (about Scott Adams’ How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). In it was a proposition that, as adults to other adults, withholding praise is immoral:


Children are accustomed to a continual stream of criticisms and praise, but adults can go weeks without a compliment while enduring criticism both at work and at home. Adults are starved for a kind word.


Coincidentally, during a coaching session yesterday the topic of celebrating successes had come up, and the recipient relayed a great quote from a colleague, “when did we stop clapping for ourselves?” It may seem silly or juvenile, but the focus here is HONEST recognition. We’re not talking about hollow praise, pandering, or sycophanting. We’re talking about genuine, timely praise.


Over the years and through much trial and error, I’ve found that the best way a mentor can ensure that praise is felt as genuine is to mix it with generous amounts of humor, as humor is also the superglue for the establishing and maintaining of connection and trust. This is an important point, because to be an effective mentor in building confidence, praise must be provided frequently to reinforce what may appear to the mentee as small or inconsequential steps that are actually critical to process or strategic thinking. Without the humor, the frequency of praise can be mistaken for fluff, as we have seen this fluff so often with the “showing up” awards that kill self-esteem, and that are more often than not the likely root cause of so many “imposter syndromes.”


As with confidence, generating a sense of humor cannot be taught. However, the goal is not to be funny. The goal is relatability, so let the dad jokes fly. For every mentee, relatability has different foundations, so a successful mentor needs to build a toolbox of relatable, genuine praises that can be applied to the right person at the right time.


In today’s employment tumult, preservation of team members is critical. Showing a path for growth and providing the supports to get there are essential for that retention. This means that the priority for the people in our organizations who are charged with managing team members needs to shift from supervision to building benches. However, the supervisors, too, need to have confidence that their places in the organization are secure, and they should be highly rewarded for their bench-building successes (so the praise needs to flow from the top frequently as well, meaning this should become a part of organizational culture).


The biggest irony? The teaser image for this piece. When we are successful, the imparting of confidence goes both ways.