Danny (a fictional character for the purposes of this post) began his apprenticeship a few months ago. From the very first day of meeting him, his manager told him he was amazing, brilliant, his work was fantastic and he was ‘doing great’.

Fantastic, you may think, well done Danny! However, did praising Danny in this way, and letting things such as poor timekeeping go unnoticed, really help Danny to grow and develop?

The fact is that everyone (including apprentices and more experienced hires) has room for improvement. The apprentices are young, they have little or no experience of the ‘world of work’, but they come to us with bucket loads of potential and a desire to grow and develop within a supportive company.

I’m fascinated by the unintentional effect that ‘over-praising’ may have on an individual’s performance. Does it actually limit a person’s growth and development?

The following is an adapted version of the conclusions from one of Carol Dweck’s studies with children, that I think it would be great for all new managers to be aware of:

“It’s hard to believe, but here’s what happens. By telling students they are smart, they get this cool feeling from being labelled ‘smart’. Unfortunately, as they continue to work and face new challenges, they become risk averse – no one wants to lose the ‘smart’ label. They become afraid you will see them as failures, which causes them to think less creatively and become less willing to try harder tasks. Now, try to imagine the cumulative effect this might have over the course of an entire apprenticeship or career.”

Dweck’s observation is that by consistently giving overly positive feedback we may be removing the opportunity for the individual to be stretched and challenged. Stretch and challenge is commonly associated with making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and building resilience and confidence. Of course, when someone is smashing it in their new role and qualification work, we celebrate with them! But what sense of motivation, challenge and ambition do we leave that young person with if this praise is constant and they are commended for even the simplest and expected things such as turning up to work on time, finishing a job, or helping a colleague out?

Lisa Firestone captures the effects of overpraising beautifully in this short article:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201312/are-we-overpraising-our-children

In Danny’s case, and in the journeys of several other young people that I have been close to, it was not a happy ending. He was let go after several unsuccessful support interventions. The fact is that no matter how good you are at your job, if you don’t turn up every day with a positive and proactive attitude, employers will soon become frustrated and disillusioned. After all, they have a business to run.

In my experience, once a manager has overpraised their newest hire, it’s often too late; they soon realise that they were too ‘easy-going’ from the outset, and it is very difficult to then become strict about the basics. Suddenly becoming strict and giving unexpected constructive feedback begins a wave of uncertainty, frustration and disappointment on both sides of the relationship. The apprentice feels they are a failure, inadequate, takes feedback as criticism, and communication breaks down on both sides.

It’s important to remember that whilst such studies are backed up by scientific research, every person and situation is unique with varying internal and external factors, for example for some with low confidence, a great deal of praise and encouragement may be necessary as this helps them to become more confident in themselves and in their new role.

In conclusion, apprenticeships are about young people learning but they also require line managers to learn too. At the LDN Group we work with managers at all stages of their journey in managing apprentices. From the matching process to monthly reviews and supporting their apprentices who are progressing into higher level qualifications and beyond.

We do this by being straight talkers and ensuring that we help people to get the basic right from day one. This honest, supportive feedback helps young people to develop the knowledge, skills and behaviours required to be successful in the world of work.

Further reading on this fascinating subject can be found here:
https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/

https://www.unk.com/blog/dangers-of-excessive-praise/

https://www.parentingscience.com/effects-of-praise.html