Legitimate praise is being shown to help people achieve "more of their potential."
Could you use an “appreciation jolt” right about now; a boost from family, friends or co-workers about how awesome you are (or, at least, were at some specific point)? A new Harvard Business School working paper suggests that buoyed by such praise, individuals will be inspired to “achieve more of their potential.”
Results of several experiments and exercises confirmed that “best-self activation inspired improvements in people’s emotions, resistance to disease, resilience to stress and burnout, creative problem solving, performance under pressure, and relationships with their employer,” the paper concludes.
In one study, participants agreed to bring a partner with whom they had a close relationship. The partners wrote stories about the participant, which were delivered to them to read before they performed a stressful task. One example: “You are unafraid to be intelligent. So many people, particularly women, are afraid to be the smartest person in the room. You are a wonderful role model for all bright, quick, and articulate women in the world, showing that it is more than ok to be clever and to allow people to see that you are smart. I can think of a time when you won the argument with class, and I found it inspirational.”
In the control condition, participants wrote their own “impact episodes” without the partner’s input. The result, “Individuals receiving feedback about their best self from one person in their social network performed better in a stressful situation than individuals who developed their own best-self episodes,” researchers found.
In a second study, participants were recruited to spend an afternoon performing tasks to measure problem-solving skills as well as psychological factors. Half were instructed to recruit friends, family or colleagues to send them an email about occasions during which they had witnessed the participant at his or her best. They were given these notes to read just before they performed their tasks. One such note read: “I remember the time when you stayed up all night to make sure that I knew I was worth more than what my high school bullies would try to make me believe. Your compassion and words allowed me to feel loved in a world that is often cruel. You reminded me of my potential to be a great yet humble person. During those blinding moments, you showed me a lot more about myself that I might not have known until years later.”
Again, those who read about their “best-self” moments performed much better than participants who had not read any personal notes,
The findings of this study should probably not be confused with what critics would see as coddling parents who indiscriminately reward children just for being a participant in some activity. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison tackled the subject last summer on social media when he learned his two boys had received a so-called participation trophy. Harrison wrote. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”
Rather than empty praise, “best-self activation” is meant to be a reminder. “Most societies and organizations have not created vehicles for reminding people who they are when they are at their best, even though theory suggests that this information can inspire them to achieve more of their potential,” the paper concludes. “By activating people’s best-self concepts and highlighting examples of them making extraordinary contributions, we found positive changes in their physiology, creative problem solving, performance under pressure, and social relationships…, There is considerable lost potential in keeping silent about how others affect us when they are at their best.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.