Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Power of Praise

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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“Call on me!” I quietly implored as I used my left arm to hold my right arm high above my desk. Miss McCloud, my first-grade teacher (and the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth) had just asked the class to identify the color of the flower in her hand. I waved my arm wildly because I was confident in my answer. To be honest, I saw myself as a bit of a color savant. Plus, I really wanted Miss McCloud to admire me for knowing the correct answer so I could bask in the glow of her approving smile. Did I mention she was the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth?

At that time in my academic career, I had been in school long enough to have figured out the three axioms of education: (1) questions have right and wrong answers and it’s good to give the right answer, (2) it’s even more satisfying to give the right answer after someone else has given the wrong answer, and (3) it’s pure bliss to give the right answer after everyone else has given the wrong answer. Then Miss McCloud really piled on the praise.

As the years passed, the axioms didn’t change much, but the nature of the questions did. By the time I was in college, the average query was far too complicated to be satisfied with a simple answer. I still raised my hand every chance I got in hopes of gaining attention, but rare was the day when others gave a flat-out wrong answer that I could easily correct in order to earn the professor’s special approval.

So I had to learn a new skill. I had to learn how to spot flaws in others’ arguments. Sure, my classmates would offer answers that were mostly correct (or at least correct in principle), but if I applied myself to the task, I could always find a flaw, point it out, and grab the spotlight.

When I moved on to grad school, I discovered that finding flaws in what others had to say wasn’t merely a rewarding hobby; it was academia’s prime directive. My classmates and I would sit in our Colosseum-shaped classrooms, listen to each other’s comments, eagerly spot a mistake, and then in gladiator fashion, swoop in and strike down the egregious logical lapse or factual faux pas. We were nit-picky, we were brutal, and we loved it.

Later, when I became a team leader, I used my growing talent for detecting mistakes by practicing what is known as “management-by-exception.” I wouldn’t say much to my direct reports when they were doing well—that would be disruptive. However, if they took a misstep, I’d speak up immediately so the problem wouldn’t escalate.

Raising children was no different. My eyes were drawn to mistakes far more often than they were to success. Nobody walks by two children playing quietly and praises them for playing quietly. It’s inconceivable. If kids are playing quietly, you don’t even see them, let alone praise them.

Once when I was working in Brazil, my “spot the error” routine was challenged. Dale Carnegie, in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggested that in order to be a decent human being, I ought to look feverishly for things done well and then offer up hearty approbation and lavish praise—not just once in a while, but all the time.

If this wasn’t radical enough, Carnegie challenged me to praise a total stranger, just to see what it was like. Of course, to follow his advice, I would have to spot something praiseworthy. And if anything should be clear by now it’s that I hadn’t been trained to see “things gone right.” For several days I looked for a praiseworthy accomplishment, but to no avail.

Then I finally struck gold. I was riding a bus through the streets of a small town near Rio de Janeiro. Inside my head Dale Carnegie was screaming, “Look for something good!” It was really annoying. Suddenly, the young man taking money for the bus fare caught my eye. He had a dreadful job. He sold bus tickets by winding his way through a crowded, speeding bus. People crabbed at him, the driver ridiculed him, chickens pecked him, and then there was the ghastly smell of a crowd of passengers who believed that bathing was for sissies. In spite of all this, the young man was the picture of professionalism.

I told him just that. I pointed out how well and quickly he made change. I mentioned that I admired his ability to keep his balance and remain polite and pleasant. And I meant it.

Bingo. I had done it. I had followed Carnegie’s admonition about approbation. Now what? First came a pause. The guy was thinking about what I had just said. Finally the young fellow smiled widely and gave me a big hug. Tears were running down his cheeks.

The bus employee introduced himself as Carlo Pereira. He explained that he had dropped out of school at age fifteen and worked as a ticket taker to help support his mother. I was the first person who had ever praised him, despite the fact that every single day for three years he had tried to do his best. Carlo then introduced me to everyone on the bus as his “American friend,” and from that day forward wouldn’t accept my money if I happened to board his vehicle.

Carlo’s devotion only grew. As I was walking down the street one day, he had the driver pull over and pick me up. Then Carlo told the driver to change routes so he could deliver me to the door of my next appointment—which, as you might guess, didn’t go down well with the other passengers. They were about to be transported blocks away from where they were originally hoping to go and were now threatening to cause Carlo bodily harm. Carlo didn’t care. I was the only customer he was concerned about. I was the only person who had ever complimented him.

Naturally, I was stunned by Carlo’s reaction to the heartfelt but simple praise I had expressed. But I later made sense of Carlo’s response. I learned that in annual corporate surveys, the number-one complaint of employees is always the same. Their leaders don’t recognize them for doing a good job. Since most bosses go through the spot-the-error educational system I went through and observe their own leaders routinely model management-by-exception, they also focus on problems, not success. In fact, generous praise isn’t even a small part of most leaders’ influence repertoire. Employees hate this lopsided treatment. They do their best work and look around to see if anyone notices, but nobody does. It turns out everyone is Carlo. Everyone is waiting for a heartfelt compliment.

And now for the punch line. You can be the stranger on the bus. Maybe you already are. But if you aren’t, or aren’t as often as you’d like to be, now is your chance. Supplement your talent for spotting problems with the ability to see things going right. Then break years of tradition and say something. Remember, be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise. Not because you want a free ride for the rest of your life, but because Carlo is doing a wonderful job every single day—and he deserves to hear from you.

Influencer QA

Opinion on Current Events: Three Frightening Factors of School Shootings


Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is the most cited living psychologist and the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University.



Following a school shooting in Ohio, Joseph Grenny shared his thoughts about the media’s effect on these events. Tragically, we witnessed yet another shooting in Santa Barbara, California this past week.
Our mentor and friend, Albert Bandura—one of the greatest living and most influential psychologists of all time—continues the conversation by sharing his thoughts on the topic of violence in schools, based on years of social science research. The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts. The following article was originally published April 4, 2012.

Public-school shootings strike fear in the public at large. Such occurrences have three factors that make them especially frightening.

The first is unpredictability. There is no forewarning when or where a shooting might occur. This makes every student a potential victim.

The second feature is the gravity of the consequences. Shooting sprees leave in their wake many deaths and severely debilitated survivors. Easy access to semiautomatic handguns, magnified in killing power with large magazines, increase the risk and carnage of heavily-armed attacks.

The third feature is uncontrollability—a perceived helplessness to protect oneself against such an attack should it occur.

Over the years, I have studied the social modeling of unusual modes of violence. Airline hijacking is but one example of the contagion of violent means. Airline hijacking was unheard of in the United States until an airline was hijacked to Havana in 1961. Prior to that incident, Cubans were hijacking planes to Miami. These incidents were followed by a wave of hijackings, both in the United States and abroad, eventually including more than seventy nations. Hijackings were brought under control by an international agreement to suspend commercial flights to countries that permitted safe landings to terrorists.

D. B. Cooper temporarily revived a declining phenomenon in the United States as others became inspired by his successful example. He devised a clever extortion technique in which he exchanged passengers for a parachute and a sizeable bundle of money. He then parachuted from the tail of a Boeing 207 to avoid entanglement on the tail or stabilizers. The newscasts provided a lot of details on how to do it. Within a few months there were eighteen hijackings on Boeing 207′s modeled on the parachute-extortion technique. They continued until a mechanical door lock was installed so that the rear exit could only be opened from the outside. Cooper became a folk hero for eluding the FBI, celebrated in song, on t-shirts, and in fan clubs.

For reasons given earlier, public-school shootings are especially alarming. The media face a challenge on how to report violent acts without spreading what they are reporting. There are two ways they can minimize the contagion. The coverage should avoid providing details on how to do it. Nor should killings be widely publicized.

The Columbine massacre, which received massive coverage, was followed by a series of copycat school killings. Other teenagers were arrested for plotting a school shooting on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. They had the guns, ammunition, and plans on how to disable the school camera system. They modeled themselves after the two Columbine killers to the point of wearing black trench coats.

Once an idea is planted it can be acted upon on some future occasion given sufficient psychosocial instigation to do so. For example, in his ranting video and manifesto, which was publicized by one of the networks, the Virginia Tech killer mentioned the two Columbine killers. In the electronic era, where anyone can post most anything online, mitigating detrimental contagion presents a more daunting challenge. As a society, we need to step up to and find a solution to this challenge.

Albert Bandura

Crucial Conversations QA

Q&A: Family Vacations—Putting R&R Back on the Agenda

Dear Crucial Skills,

A group of my family and friends is flying to a wonderful resort for a family wedding. Everyone usually gets along, but when we travel together, one family member can be the deal breaker! She can be demanding and outspoken. Because I am a retired psychiatric nurse, I am usually called upon to help settle situations with her. I’m happy to help, but this is my holiday too. What can I do so that I can also relax?

Needing a Vacation

Dear Needing,

Congratulations! You are obviously skilled at resolving interpersonal conflict, dicey situations, and family squabbles. That is a good skill set. Over the years, I’m sure you have been the reason that dinners, barbeques, holidays, and vacations have been salvaged and reasonably successful. So again, great work. Wouldn’t it be great if every family had a designated helper? Or two or three or four? I’m hinting at the solution.

The question is, what do you need a vacation from? On the first level, you need a vacation from work, routine, and stress—like we all do. On the next level, you need a vacation from being the designated conflict resolver. The need, I’m thinking, was self-created. When you saw a conflict, I’m imagining that with good intentions, you alone stepped up and then stepped in to resolve the conflict. Or you waited until tempers exploded, gossip overflowed, or family members were packing, and then someone begged you to help. Again, you intervened. Don’t get me wrong, during these many cycles, you helped a lot, but you also sent a message that the people arguing, domineering, bickering, or brawling, weren’t responsible or didn’t need to worry about their actions. The super nurse would always save the day, the trip, or the event. If you’re like me, saving the day can bring some personal gratification. But you and I, and others like us (you know who you are) have created a cycle that is tiring and stressful—a cycle that we now need a vacation from.

So with that introduction, I offer a little advice about how to create your own vacation. It begins by thinking about what gaps you need to consider and who you need to talk to.

Scenario 1

Who you address: Everyone in the party.

Gap: People need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, you have always stepped in.
Strategy: You don’t do anything—before, during, or after. You send a non-verbal message that it’s not your job. The outcome is predictable and not pretty. I don’t suggest this possibility.

Scenario 2

Who you address: The demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: We need everyone to behave well, and historically she has been domineering and outspoken.
Strategy: Talk to her privately about what would help the wedding go smoothly, and what could cause it not to. Ask her for her help. If she is agreeable, I’d ask if you could help by giving her an agreed upon, but very subtle signal, if she begins to behave in ways that might not help the other guests enjoy the wedding. This strategy is best if you and she have a friendly relationship. If not, I probably wouldn’t attempt it.

You should note that the previous scenario is preventative. It helps create clear expectations and comes with agreed-upon, real-time subtle cues. The next scenario is also preventative but takes a very different approach—a coaching approach.

Scenario 3

Who you address: Anyone who has had a falling out with the original demanding and outspoken family member.

Gap: They need to resolve their own conflicts. In the past, they have let these issues go from bad to worse, or asked you to intervene.

Strategy: Meet with them privately and tell them that you have intervened in the past and feel that you need a break. Tell them that they need to resolve the conflicts themselves. They can try to avoid conflict by being patient or avoiding behavior that eggs the other on. Or if there is a conflict, they can work it out themselves. Offer coaching help, but assure them that your time as the designated conflict-resolver is over. If they ask for coaching, share your ideas. I’m sure you have many helpful tips that work. (It might be too self-serving on my part if I suggest you recommend that they buy a copy of some good book on the subject.)

In conclusion, I again offer you my congratulations for having the ability to resolve conflicts. It seems you have saved a lot of events from completely unraveling. As a result, you have helped create some dependencies that now need to be reevaluated. I think that the last two possibilities I’ve noted will help you be less central in preserving your family unity. I’m sure you have the skills to do them; to the extent that they work, you will have earned your vacation.