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Encouragement not praise

An important goal for me as supervisor of PhD students is to build their confidence. Building confidence in a scientific topic comes through growing a student’s knowledge in a discipline and its methods. Growth in confidence can also come through how a supervisor mentors their student. Compliments can be part of that growth.

I only recently realised there is an important difference between praise and encouragement, particularly when it comes to building confidence.

A fundamental difference is that the praise you give reflects your own values, whereas encouragement asks someone to identify what they value. In this sense praise could be seen as coming from a selfish point of view (I value that, therefore you should to), whereas encouragement shows interest in what someone else values, without passing your own judgement on those values.

Let me give some examples.

Say a senior professor approaches a student and she says “Those analyses you are doing are groundbreaking. You are so clever with statistics. I am so proud of how much you have learned here.”

This is praise. In fact, what I wrote is so corny you might start to wonder if they are trying to flatter you to get something out of you.

The praise can be more subtle than my example. One tell-tale sign is labels. The prof is labelling your work (and by implication you) as groundrbreaking, they are labelling as someone who is clever at statistics. They are saying what you are doing is making them proud. This is praise and it all comes from a place of the values they hold for you and your work.

Praise, confidence and manipulation

Praise can be well-intentioned and I don’t mean to knock people who praise (I compliment my students often!). Praise can also build confidence and many good people who mean the best for you will praise you.

The problem with praise is that it can also build dependency of the student on the supervisor. The supervisor is setting up a situation where the student needs to come to the supervisor to build their self-worth. The student’s self-worth is portrayed through the supervisors eyes, and so is external to the student themselves.

Praise isn’t effective at building intrinsic self-worth.

You could say the entirety of academic culture is built on praise. You wouldn’t be far wrong. Academic culture places immense value on status symbols like fancy journals, titles, commendations from peers and awards. These things are all labels for the value we’re told we should place in a scientist’s career.

Praise is frequently employed by academics to ensure other people say ‘yes’ to an ask. These are traps academics set for each other (I’ve been known to set them on occasion too!). A colleague once wanted my help for their conference so they wrote to me saying: “I’m looking for thought leaders to help organize this conference… “

This use of praise not necessarily a bad thing, organizing conferences is an important part of a career. But as it happens I didn’t have the time or inclination to help with that particular conference. So I laughed to myself and turned the opportunity down. (If you are are sucker for saying ‘yes’, try ithinkwell’s advice about “not saying yes”).

But praise is also occurs in more extreme and harmful cases of manipulation. In fact, in recent news about bullying in academia, ‘praise’ has been frequently mentioned by the victims. In these extreme cases praise becomes one of the tools a bully uses to break down a student’s confidence. The bullying will follow a cycle of praising to create dependence, but then put-downs to further suppress any hope the student had of developing their own self-worth and thus gaining independence from the bully.

So notice the things people say to you and think critically. Is it praise? Are they labelling you? If they are praising you, what is the context? It may be because they truly want you to feel good about what you’ve accomplished, like your parents telling you they are proud of the award of your PhD. It may be because they need your help with something, which could be good for your career, or a time-consuming distraction. Or it may be they are trying to manipulate you in more serious way.

Encouragement and self-worth

So what’s the alternative to praise for supervisors who want to build a student’s intrinsic self-worth?

Encouragement is about helping someone find their own intrinsic values for what they are doing. To give some examples, lets revisit our Prof from before, but re-write what she said as encouragement:

“What do you think are the most important next steps for solving the statistical issues our field faces? Do you enjoy the work on analysis you are doing? What are you most proud of in the paper you just published?”

Now these questions are asking the student what their intrinsic values are. The student isn’t being labelled. The prof isn’t making any value judgements on the work. They are helping the student identify their own values.

It could also be encouragement for the Prof to say “Thank you for presenting your work, it has been really helpful for my own research to learn about these new techniques.” Here the Prof is sharing how she was encouraged by the presentation, without offering any labels for the student’s work.

Ultimately encouragement helps someone to become more independent of what others think of them. If you deeply understand what you like doing and what you value most, then you can pursue career satisfaction without the need for external validation.

Endnote I learned these ideas about praise vs encouragement in an odd way. I was listening to a parenting podcast about raising confident children and it was talking about praise vs encouragement. I wouldn’t normally draw parallels between students and children! But ‘praise’ has also come up in several recent bullying cases and at the same time I’ve been ‘encouraged’ to use encouragement in leadership courses I’ve taken. In fact, many global leaders say having children was a turning point that enabled them to be better leaders. Just goes to show we should be supporting parents of all genders to stay in academia.

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