On Praise

Geeks can be funny with praise. Some of them are content with the usual, “Good job!” or, “Well done!” I’ve found this type to be the exception, rather than the rule, however. In my experience, praising geeks requires a bit more thought.

Some geeks seem a bit skeptical if praise for an idea or action comes before she knows that you completely understand what she is thinking or doing. As such, I’ve had to make sure that I either ask questions or say enough about the subject that the geek accepts the thought that she is not talking above my head. She then accepts that I know what I’m talking about when I say, “Good idea!” Once she accepts my comprehension, she can, in turn, accept my praise.

Other geeks are trickier. While they understand on the surface that you understand the idea or action and approve of it, they have a little voice in their heads saying, “I didn’t really do much. She just doesn’t know. Maybe she thinks that I did, but I didn’t. I should have done or thought of so much more.” A friend of mine once described this behavior as pathological, and it is especially common among geeks who went to MIT—that institution practically embeds it in their (okay, our—fine, I admit it!) collective brains. But MIT geeks aren’t the only ones who find it virtually impossible to accept praise without internally denigrating themselves; other geeks do this as well.

There is no sure-fire leadership behavior that can help the geek in denial accept your praise. If the geek denies the praise outright to you, you can attack each self-denigrating point in order to try to bludgeon the geek into accepting your praise. Most geeks, however, do not vocally deny the praise—some might actually act as if they accept it—but you can tell that something isn’t quite “right” with how they have physically reacted to your positive comments.

If you see this type of physical reaction, you have two choices: try to make them internalize the praise, or simply go on with life. My first reaction is always the former; I’ve given the praise, accept it, darn it! However, after years of hitting my head against that brick wall, I have slowly come to the conclusion that the only things that will allow these geeks to recognize their positive contributions are time and experience. That is, their OWN time and experience—not yours.

However, just because your praise might not get through to your geek doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t praise him. Praise, either in speech or email, allows your geek to understand and recognize your expectations for his performance. Just make sure you understand your geek’s idea or action, and react accordingly. The results might be subtle, but you’ll get better overall performance from your geek.