You're sooo special.
You're the best little soccer player out there, and to show you just how special you are, we're going to give you a huge trophy.
Of course, we're also going to give one to everybody else on the team. It doesn't matter whether they played or not, whether the team won or lost, or even if you came to all the practices; everybody gets a trophy.
Call me a killjoy, and trust me, many have, but I don't think giving away token trophies inspires anyone to new heights of improved performance. Nor do I think it builds self-esteem.
How special can you be if your effort has no impact on the reward?
We've long been told that as parents, we should build our child's self-esteem. And if you're a manager, you've probably also been coached in how to give positive feedback.
Positive reinforcement is important. Whether you're 5 or 45, we all appreciate, and benefit from, external validation. But in many cases, the "You're So Special" movement has gone so overboard with meaningless praise that many people, particularly children, don't even understand the concept of internal pride.
The "special" movement started with good intentions. Many of us were raised by well-intended yet overly critical parents. They were often people who truly loved their children. But because of the way they were raised, or because they were afraid that praise would make their kids go soft, they tended to focus on the negative, asking why the A minus wasn't an A plus, focusing on the strike-out instead of the winning score, generally being very hard to please and stingy with the compliments.
People who were raised in that type of environment often correctly ascertained that they would have been happier, and probably done better in life, if they'd been given more positive reinforcement.
We vowed to do better, so we tell our kids they're wonderful all the time. The problem is, when you gush over mediocrity, there's no way to distinguish truly outstanding. If the losers get the same trophies as the winners, what's the point of even trying?
Kids aren't stupid; they know it when you're feeding them a line. And they're not wimps either. Sitting with the sting of a loss isn't the worst thing in the world. The pain of losing is often what inspires us to do better.
The challenge as a parent, or a boss, is to master the duality of validating the inherent worth and dignity of the person and giving them accurate feedback at the same time.
We often assume that we have to choose between praise or critique, but we don't. Certainly most of us are smart enough to say, "You're the best son anyone could ask for, and your team didn't do so well this season." Or what I might say to Steve Jobs, "You're an innovation genius, and this new iPhone has some serious issues, buddy."
We need to be able to tell people the truth, be they kids or colleagues. Building self-esteem isn't about pretending that people are winners at everything. It's about providing people with the internal fortitude to rebound when they fail. It's about nurturing their souls and developing their character.
It's about caring enough to say, "When I watch you run down the soccer field, my heart bursts with love because I think you're so special, and the other team won so they get to take home the trophy."
Lisa Earle McLeod is keynote speaker, author, columnist and business consultant who specializes in sales and leadership training. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for "how smart people can get better at everything." Visit www.TriangleofTruth.com for a short video intro.
Follow Lisa Earle McLeod on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisaearlemcleod