The worst piece of praise I’ve sometimes received after a talk is "You were the best speaker today." What’s so bad about that? you ask. Well, first of all, it undercuts all the other speakers. What if another speaker was standing next to me? Moreover, it reminds me of the fact that in many cases I won’t be the best speaker, so now I feel nervous and self-conscious. Instead of enhancing me, this comment unbalances me in the future.
This is an example of one of the most common mistakes I see people make with praise: giving such compliments as "Your report was better than Jack’s" or "You’re the smartest person in the room" or "You were the best player out there on the field." Why? Because what you are actually doing is comparing, not praising. You are attempting to prop people up by kicking others down! Real praise is telling someone "Your report was amazing," or "The comedic timing of your speech was perfect," not telling them that their report or their speech was better than another person’s.
When you tell someone that they are "better" than someone else, that by definition means that someone else is "worse." Moreover, by telling someone they are "better" or "the best," you are placing an unconscious, implicit limit on your expectation for what that other person can achieve. Also, if we are striving only to be better than someone else, doesn’t that set our expectations for ourselves too low? It tells us that as soon as we are just a little bit better than another person, we can stop trying, even if it means stopping short of our potential.
If you want to enhance others, do not compare them. In truth, this was the hardest lesson of the book for me to write, because I thought I was intuitively praising others, including my wife and son. But I now know I was making a crucial mistake. No matter how good your intentions, if you excitedly say to a child "You were the best one out there!" you just taught them that your love and excitement were predicated on their position compared to others. Nothing undercuts Big Potential more than comparison praise. But it is so easy to inadvertently do.
Think how often we fall into the comparison trap. "You are the hottest/smartest/funniest person in this room." Why do we have to diminish everyone else in the room in an attempt to praise one individual? And what if that individual were to move to another room filled with more attractive/smarter/funnier people? Why not simply say, "You are beautiful and smart and funny"? Comparison praise feeds into the Small Potential mentality that success—or leadership, creativity, beauty, love, or anything else that we care about—are limited resources; it exacerbates the Small Potential zero-sum mentality of success. When you tell a group of people that only a certain percentage of them can be successful, you are dampening everyone’s drive, ambition, and potential.
The easiest way to stop comparison praise is simply to eliminate superlatives from our vocabulary—"the best," "the fastest," "the smartest," "the prettiest." All of these undercut others instead of telling people they are great in their own right. Instead, follow what I consider an inviolable law of praise for leaders and parents: Do not compliment at the expense of others.
What’s the best compliment I could get after my talk? It’s not about my speaking style; it’s when someone tells me they are going to start doing one of the positive habits I spoke about, or they’re going to buy my book for a friend who is struggling. The most authentic way to acknowledge someone is to change your behavior. The best praise is by actions changed.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." If we really want to enhance others, we must stop comparing.