That'll Do, Pig: If You Care About Excellence, Stop Over-Praising

In a meeting of nonprofit leaders the other day, I heard an executive praise some recent work done by his staff as "amazing" and "incredible."

I hear this kind of thing so often that, normally, it hardly registers -- it's become the equivalent of someone saying "thank you."

But this time it hit me: it is the equivalent of saying "thank you." What these staffers had done wasn't amazing or incredible at all. It was their job.

How did "amazing and incredible" come to mean "doing your job"?

I thought back to the highest-performing organizations I've worked with, in entertainment, media, technology or politics: no one talked like this. Among the very best of those organizations was Obama for America. At OFA, superlative performance wasn't amazing or incredible. It was described simply as "gettin' it done."

At mediocre organizations, on the other hand, people get a gold star for finding their way to the office.

Of course, we should recognize good work. Skillful managers catch people doing things right, as Ken Blanchard taught us long ago.

But there's a long way from there to here. In the years since we discovered positive reinforcement, a kind of praise inflation has taken over. Like monetary inflation, praise inflation reduces the value of the underlying currency.

It's a formula for mediocrity. If you praise people to the skies for simply meeting your expectations, what does that say about your expectations?

I myself wrestle with the temptation to over-praise. After all, it feels like what a kind, supportive boss would do.

But I've realized that over-praise is the opposite of supportive: it tells people is that their work isn't worth much.

The result? High performers feel that their work is unrecognized, and low performers feel encouraged to get away with even less -- after all, "adequate" has now been deemed "amazing".

Research backs this up. Intrinsic motivation -- satisfaction in one's work -- yields better results than does extrinsic motivation -- external rewards or punishments. Extrinsic motivation is not only weaker than intrinsic motivation, it undermines it.

It might be better to take a lesson from another model of excellence, the 1995 movie Babe. Farmer Hoggett is the "boss" of Babe, the world's highest-achieving pig. Babe has learned to do the job of a top sheepdog, and against all odds (spoiler alert), he wins a sheep-herding championship.

Here's how Farmer Hoggett praises his hard-working genius:

Narrator: And though every single human in the stands or in the commentary boxes was at a complete loss for words, the man who in his life had uttered fewer words than any of them knew exactly what to say.

Farmer Hoggett: That'll do, pig. That'll do.

And Babe beams with pride.