I recently addressed 70 organisational and industrial psychologists at a conference on the role of resilience in preventing burnout. I had prepared well, and judging by their participation in some exercises we did, the audience enjoyed it. At the conclusion the organiser formally thanked me, saying nice things, and I felt very good about myself.

I bumped into the conference organiser later on a couple of occasions during the conference:

“You were fantastic”, he said the first time.

“Your session was wonderful”, he said a few hours later.

“Magnificent session”, he commented that evening.

By now, something odd happened. You know that little voice at the back of your mind, the one that’s usually negative? Well, my little voice said that the organiser probably tells the same thing to all the presenters.

Then I discounted everything he had said. I also felt I couldn’t trust him.

Looking back on what happened, I am sure that he was just trying to make me feel good about myself – to enhance my self-esteem. His intentions may have been good, but look at the negative impact it had on me. If anything, it decreased my self-esteem because I felt his praise was hollow.

People misunderstand self esteem

I think many people, such as the conference organiser, misunderstand self esteem. They think you can build children’s self esteem by repeating how beautiful, clever and talented they are. Many self help books are based on the idea “If you can dream it, you can have it”. Some leaders tell their team members “Buy into the vision, and we can do anything”. At work, human resources professionals prefer to talk about “development areas” rather than “weaknesses”, and of course we only face “challenges” in life, never “problems”.

The consequence is that the accuracy of our self-insight suffers.

We become overly confident and self-assured. We don’t like to accept criticism. We feel that we should be treated better than we are. We believe that we should be able to achieve success without ability, effort and time. Our inflated view of ourselves makes it difficult for us to accept that success comes as a result of hard work, failing and then more hard work. (click here)

My brother, a university professor, tells me that every year many of his new first-year students are surprised to discover that they have to work hard for their grades! Unrealistic praise at school and home had the unfortunate consequence that those students didn’t realise that university courses require hard work.

The real path to success

Put simply, the path to success is hard work and resilience to cope with the inevitable setbacks and heartaches. Real self esteem and feeling good about yourself comes from accomplishments, not the other way around. (click here)

So if just being positive is not enough, how can show appreciation for excellence? How can we recognise and reinforce excellence, so that it becomes a new standard at home and at work?

There is a very simple formula that works for me, which I have described before (click here) which I refer to as WHAT AND WHY.

WHAT: describe the behaviour that you want to recognise or reinforce

WHY: explain why it is important

Using this formula, the conference organiser could have made different comments after my presentation:

“Three people have told me that using pictures instead of words helped them to easily understand the concepts”

“You did well to catch up on the time, despite all the questions. That enabled us to keep to our conference schedule”

“Your topic provoked a lot of interest. I have several requests for copies of your slides and one of our interns wants to contact you for help with her thesis”

I think these comments would have had a very different impact on me compared to being told that I am fantastic.

If this all makes sense to you, why don’t you try using the WHAT and WHY formula to give appropriate recognition to your family, friends and colleagues? It’s actually quite easy once you get the hang of it.