Surprising Ways Rewards and Praise Can Harm Others

The Entitlement Cure

By Dr. John Townsend

We sometimes reward (through actions) and praise (through words) our spouses, employees, children, and friends in ways that can actually harm them, even though it feels good at the time because it seems so positive. But what seems positive is not always what is best. A pizza slice or two is positive—but four can cause problems. These unwise reward/praise approaches, although well intentioned, create bad fruit. Remember—these are patterns, not isolated events. Doing these things every now and then would be all right, but when they become trends, they risk fostering attitudes of entitlement.

Praising What Takes No Effort

Rewards and praise are most effective when they focus on an achievement that took time and energy. Most of the time, when praise is at its most effective, that achievement would involve a person's character or internal makeup. To repeatedly praise a little girl for being pretty puts her in a bind. What she hears is, What gets me loved is something I can't do much about. She also hears, My inside isn't important, just my outside.

We all know people, especially women, who have received that sort of treatment. What happens to many of them as their bodies age over time? They become desperate to look young again, since that is the only thing that has brought them love and acceptance. How would that little girl feel if instead she heard, "You work really hard and you do a good job at school." Now what receives the praise? Her diligence, which she can do a lot about. Although her looks will fade over time, her character will not. Her character will grow and blossom and become even more beautiful her entire life.

Praising What Is Required

Praise should be reserved for those times when someone stretches himself beyond the norm, puts extra effort or time into a task, or exceeds expectations. It's not about doing the minimum, the expected. No one gets a party for showing up to work on time: "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'" (Luke 17:10).

A client of mine owned a media business. But before he went into business for himself, he'd had a harsh and uncaring boss. This boss had alienated people and ultimately ruined his company, after the rock stars and the high performers on whom he depended all left because they simply wouldn't put up with his behavior anymore.

So my client, having seen the trouble that went with a lack of praise and reward, overcompensated. He went too far in his attempt to avoid being the kind of boss who had so wounded him. He overpaid his staff. He didn't hold them to high standards in their work. He didn't correct them or change their compensation when they underperformed.

His actions created a happy staff. Who wouldn't like such an arrangement? And he truly was a nice, caring boss. But his employees didn't pull together as a team, nor did they perform well. When I saw all this, I helped him restructure his expectations, alter the company comp package, and change the corporate culture to insist on both high performance and high relationships.

Things were rocky for a while. Staff members now considered him unfair—after all, they had known only an entitlement-producing boss. A couple of them left. But most of the staff understood that if the company was to survive, a new culture had to be put in place, one that expected performance. Those who stayed buckled down and started showing good attitudes. Because of these changes, the business started flourishing. Don't get caught in the "praise for the minimum" trap!

Praising What Is Not Specific

"You are amazing!"

"You are just awesome!"

"You're a great human being just because you are you."

Well, thanks for that vague compliment. But where do I go with it? Our culture is awash in these exaggerations that have roughly the same value as an empty calorie. Both yield insignificant benefits. Our brains have buckets where information goes. Praise should go in the right bucket: the bucket of hard work, of being kind, of being honest, of being vulnerable. But the brain has no appropriate bucket for such nonspecific, excessive statements, and therefore is unable to make constructive use of them.

I once praised in this way, until I realized that I did so only because it was a shortcut. It takes little effort to speak such phrases, and I could say them to my wife or a fence post, it didn't really matter. What requires effort is to take the time to observe and relate to a specific person about a particular praiseworthy behavior or attitude: "The homemade soup you took all day to make is amazing." "You are awesome in how you motivate our staff to make more phone calls every day." These statements go into the buckets that count.

Praising What Takes an Ability and Creates an Identity

We need affirmation when we try hard and achieve well. We also need to know when we have done well in our class, our staff, or our sport. That is why competition can be healthy. The message is, "You are good at what you do." But when the message crosses the line to, "You are a better person than others because of what you do," or "You deserve special treatment," trouble results.

If you are a parent, the right message is, "Great job on defense in the soccer game! You worked hard with your team and your individual plays were excellent. Now go and help the coach pick up the equipment." Top-tier executives, students, managers, and athletes all have to stand in line. Keep in mind that while your child may be better in ability, she is no better intrinsically. In the eyes of God, she is no better than anyone else, as the Lord is no respecter of persons (see Acts 10:34).

Praising What Is Not Based on Reality

One of the saddest things I see an encouraging person do is to give someone hope even though no basis exists for that hope. Buoyed by an encourager who said, "You can do anything you want to," an individual might spend years and all of his energy in traveling down a path that is simply the wrong path for him and that inevitably leads to disappointment.

Do you enjoy the current crop of talent-based TV shows? I do; I love both the talent and the energy. But a pastor at a church I recently attended pointed out that early in each season, you see a lot of train wrecks when individuals work their hearts out trying to sing, dance, or entertain when clearly they lack the skill or talent. "Why," he asked, "didn't anyone love them enough, early on, to say, 'That's not you; let me help you discover what you're really good at'?"

My parents never told me I could play in the NBA if I wanted to, because they knew that while I liked basketball, I didn't have a lot of talent. I am grateful that my parents helped me put my energies into areas where I had more strengths.

A Lack of Warmth

Ironically, entitlement can occur when a person gets little praise, care, or warmth. That might surprise you, but it makes sense.

We all need to know we are loved and accepted. It's a basic human requirement for health and functioning. But when a person has a number of cold, detached, or self-absorbed relationships, he often creates what is called a defensive grandiose identity. That is, to protect himself from the emptiness or harshness of his relational sphere, he will craft a self-perception that is entitled, self-centered, and larger than life. That helps keep the hurt and loneliness at bay.

A business client of mine was seriously alienating himself from his staff and family. He couldn't take criticism well, had to feel (and let people know) that he had all the answers, and presented himself as smarter and better than everyone around him. He had put himself in danger of losing both his company and his family.

He and I began digging into who he was as a person. I didn't find in his background a family that spoiled him or praised him in the wrong way. Instead, I discovered that his home life as a child had included two damaged parents who had little interest in reaching into their bright son's internal world, understanding him, and caring for him. They functioned well in terms of providing structure and values. But because they did not offer him warmth, at his core he felt unlovable and ashamed of himself.

As we dug further, he remembered that when he went away to college, he reinvented himself. He tried out for sports, met girls, and got elected to student government. But his attitude went the wrong way. Instead of becoming grateful and caring, he came across as arrogant and superior.

This story has a happy ending. He had enough self-awareness and had felt enough pain that he was motivated to deal with the early hurts of his cold childhood and then do some productive grieving, letting go, and asking for support to replace what he had lost. Almost immediately, he saw his family and company with new eyes. He cared more for them, listened well, and willingly entered their worlds.

Defensive grandiosity is simply a shell we construct to keep negative feelings at bay. When the entitled person begins the process of growth, the shell begins to dissolve, and healthy feelings and behavior begin to form.


Taken from The Entitlement Cure by Dr. John Townsend, now available in softcover. Learn more about this excellent resource. Recently Dr. Townsend wrote an editorial on about the Ethan Crouch situation and how to prevent an "Affluenza" parenting tragedy in your own family. Read It Here Watch Dr. Townsend's interview on Fox & Friends as he discusses how not to raise an "Affluenza" teen:

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