Management Skills: Praise and Positive Feedback

The other day I read this Wall Street Journal article called “Smarter Ways to Discipline Children.” The article advocates the parent management strategy outlined by Dr. Alan E. Kazdin in his famous book The Kazdin Method. Basically the doctors and researchers discussed in the article have found that the only effective way to get desirable behaviors out of a child is through praise and positive feedback. Trying to correct undesirable behaviors through spanking or timeout or other punishment just does not work.

I couldn’t wait to tell my wife, who happens to be a therapist, about my amazing discovery. I shared the article with Kelly, and she said, “John! I’ve told you about Kazdin a hundred times. Don’t you ever listen to me?” Sometimes I’m not a good listener.

No one is better at praise than my wife. I have to remind myself constantly to give praise both at home and at work, but she’s a natural, which is why she’s a naturally excellent mother and therapist. Two quick examples follow.

First, our son Jack hates taking medicine. A couple of months ago, Jack had strept throat. I tried everything to get him to take the medicine. Eventually I had to force him to take it – I pinned the little guy down and dumped a shot of amoxicillin down his throat. It was awful. Later my wife put the medicine in some applesauce. Every time Jack took a bite of his applesauce/medicine concoction Kelly would start hooting and hollering like a whackadoodle. “YAYYYYYYYY!!!!” You never heard such hooting and hollering. Fast forward to this earlier week, and Jack was sick again, this time with a double ear infection. He needed to take the same lousy medicine, expect this time, Kelly didn’t need the applesauce. To my astonishment, Jack eagerly gulped down the pink slime, and then looked up at mommy for his praise. “YAYYYYY!!!” shouted two whackadoodles this time.

As a second example, Jack has recently taken interest in going pee-pee in the potty. “He’s too young,” I told my wife. “Don’t waste your time.” Anyway, somehow she got Jack to squeeze out a couple of drops of wee-wees into the toilet a few weeks ago, and when he did, it was like the Fourth of July in the bathroom. Not only was there a massive celebration, but out of the chaos the “Pee-Pee in the Potty,” dance was born. You can do it. Just point your fingers to the sky and alternate pumping them up and down while chanting, “Pee pee in the potty! Pee in the potty!” It’s such good fun, that after a few lucky shots Jack start asking to go to the bathroom. “Pee-pee,” he says in his little Jack voice as he waltzes towards the bathroom door. Amazing.

The WSJ article makes the point that focusing on praise is harder than it sounds. Dr. Kazdin says people’s brains have a “negativity bias,” which means parents are more likely to notice when kids display the wrong behaviors. This seems to ring true in the workplace too.

Let’s face it, management and parenting are essentially the same thing. Employees will behave the way managers desire if the managers would just lavishly praise the employees when they model those desirable behaviors. Managers tend to focus on the worst – the bottom ten percent, the challenges, the opportunities, or whatever other jargon you’ve heard used to describe an aggregate of negative behaviors.

Managers – Kazdin says there’s a better way. You can get more out of your people with a spoonful of sugar.

A spoonful of sugar
A spoonful of sugar (Photo credit: AJC1)
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