Terry Prone: Praise is always welcome but rarely dispersed to those who deserve it

26th Apr 2021
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Originally featured in The Irish Examiner

In corporate culture, praise is seen as flattery and criticism as the best way to develop performance, writes Terry Prone

Day 199

I get mocked in the Sunday Times for sending a civil servant a note, after a press conference for which I had prepped him, saying “You were stellar. Calm, expert, helpful, expository.”

I get an H1 for flattery from the columnist, Colin Coyle. Listen, never having won an H1 for anything, I’ll take and cherish that one.

It does, however, hammer home how surprising is praise, although it really shouldn’t be It can stick with the person who’s been praised for the rest of their lives like a remembered amulet against pain and disappointment.

But here’s the rub. Decades ago, delivering media training to more than 100 journalists from a major newspaper, I applauded one for a habit of communication that made them particularly credible.

The individual sat in a semi-defensive crouch, and when asked why, told me she was waiting for the “But—” she was used to from her direct manager. The rest of the group got in on the act and agreed that they never got praised except as a precursor to criticism.

In fact, the only time they ever heard from management was when they made a mistake. Nobody ever came by their desk to tell them the piece they’d written for the paper a few days earlier was a gem of witty description. They laughed sadly at the very idea.

That group has been replicated in our training rooms every week of every month of every subsequent year.

Every week, some course participant reacts to a positive comment with suspicion, because they’re not used to praise. The corporate culture within which they live is consistently watchful, negative and punitive.

Praise is seen as flattery and criticism as the best way to develop performance. It would remind you of that old poster “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Good managers (and good trainers, too) set out to catch people doing something right and to tell them about it. Ideally in front of others.

Being praised for something specific in front of others is a great reinforcer. And putting it in writing thereafter is even better.

I’m sure there exists a human who doesn’t react well to deserved praise, but I’ve yet to meet them.

Day 200

Two hundred days in this particular lockdown and I’m developing a terror of early release. It’s the lost skills. I need to do practice walking in four inch heels.

Day 201

Today, I was involved in a board meeting of an august body attended by Zoomy VIPs, contributing from their homes or home offices and found myself hating the shelves.

Maybe it’s because it’s “only” the box room, or maybe it’s historic disregard for the home office, but the standard of shelving in your average Zoom meeting is aesthetically unsatisfying, even to someone of an era when student accommodation was instantly identifiable by the unpainted planks balanced on bricks up against one wall.

Maybe Bernard O’Shea has better balance and concentration than I have, but you have to doubt the social acceptability of wearing anything for that long.

Shelves in Zoom meetings include awful white boards bending between right-angled supports badly screwed into the wall just distant enough from each other to ensure the boards sag in the middle, filled, as they always are, with black file folders.

It’s that or the IKEA ones with oddly sized blocks of shelves which are OK the first time you see them but whose attraction fades with repetition. Also, because the rooms are small, people sit with their backs almost directly in front of those IKEA shelves, which means you can read the titles, and some of those books are quite surprising. I will not name names, but…

Day 202

One of the most frequently deployed photographs of our Tanaiste has him poking himself in the face with an index finger.

This week, we’re also seeing photographs of Robert Watt, poking himself in the face with two fingers. You have to wonder if it’s their way of controlling the desire to yell at some questioner. At least they’re young enough for it not to leave permanent dents.

Day 203

I finish River Kings by Cat Jarman published by William Collins, which deals with what DNA and other tests applied to skeletons and their props reveal about the Vikings.

The props found with the dead include Islamic coins cast in parts of the world not – up to now – associated with the Vikings. The way Jarman tells it, some of the most interesting information about these Scandinavian explorer/warriors came from the findings of detectorists.

That being the term for folk wielding metal detectors and digging down to – in some cases – reveal hoards of silver secreted by Vikings in a couple of sites in England.

Day 204

I confess to a friend that I’m thinking of buying a metal detector. “Oh, like the lads on the beach?” she says.

Yes, I tell her, but not for beach use. I live in a Martello tower, so I figure those who built it might have dropped interesting items I could dig up in my garden. I might even discover something Viking, since an east coast sheltered sandy cove would have been the perfect place to beach their ships while they engaged in their usual round of mayhem.

Metal detectors are surprisingly cheap and I already have a spade. Anything I find that looks promising I will wash off and bring to the National Museum.

Day 205

Research emerges today revealing an increased level of mankiness in the population. No, not manliness, despite what AutoCorrect might wish. The population is not more virile. Just more manky.

We are, apparently, not washing ourselves as often as we did before Covid-19 struck. For example, showering doesn’t happen every day, for many people, at the moment. Those living alone are particularly reluctant to clean themselves up, which suggests that self-respect can’t begin to compete with sloth.

It also goes to show that although we tend to negatively characterize peer pressure, it may have its merits on the personal hygiene front. Seeing the person at the next desk gag while holding their nose just might alert a colleague to the need for semi-regular ablutions.

Diminished personal cleanliness is exacerbated by people going off clothes-washing as well, during the pandemic.

Bernard O’Shea has just revealed in this very newspaper that he’s been wearing the same pair of jeans – unwashed – for the last four weeks. Four unbroken weeks.

His wife seems to have reservations about this, but O’Shea’s effrontery is impregnable to spousal reproach. It’s a mystery, though, how he gets away with it. I might get three wears out of a pair of jeans, but that’s the limit.

Sooner or later I spill coffee, drop toast butter side down into my lap, slightly set fire to the jeans or sit on chewing gum.

Maybe Bernard O’Shea has better balance and concentration than I have, but you have to doubt the social acceptability of wearing anything for that long.

I don’t know his wife, but I’m with her.