A few months ago, I was sitting among my co-workers in a meeting reviewing the previous quarter’s sales numbers. My manager just recently completed our quarterly performance reviews. Unbeknownst to me, my well-meaning superior would give me an unwarranted shout out. I had completed an optional industry-related training course and happen to mention this fact to my boss during my quarterly review. My motives being demonstrating my willingness to be a self-directed learner. Surprise, surprise! My boss decides to articulate my achievement publicly to my team during our team meeting. All 30 of my co-workers, a nice composite of salespeople and pre-sales staff.
The natural consequence being applause, most likely a byproduct of social convention. Right, in-synch with all of the social cues that it is almost a semi-automatic response. However, I did not feel good about this moment of unsolicited praise. As I looked around the room I see slow clapping that mirrored all the signs of a conditioned response. There was something insincere about as gazed at the blase demeanor of my coworkers. A fitting demeanor coupled with irritated looks skepticism. For some, clear unspoken opprobrium was being expressed by their frustrated glares. A silent censure. Unarticulated disapproval, not the kind of response I was intending to invoke. Especially considering I am a very reserved person at work who avoids the spotlight at all costs.
Where my coworkers being unreasonable? That is a debatable question, however, their frustration was understandable. At the time I hadn’t even been with my current employer for a year and my workload was lighter than that of my coworkers. The new guy getting praise when everyone else is working circles around him is a recipe for contempt. While I have many disagreements with my coworkers this was one point we all had some common ground, I didn’t deserve praise. Hence why my stomach sank when it was announced that I had completed the previous referenced training course. I only mentioned it to my boss for any potential exculpatory benefit for my lighter workload. In the end, this ploy only ended up backfiring.
My grief and the annoyance of my teammates is far from a new behavior phenomenon. Rather is an enduring fixture of the human condition and how guilt weighs on our psyche. No other than the great moral philosopher Adam Smith expounded this in his initial book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yes, Smith did write a book prior to his classic 1776 The Wealth of Nations. While The Wealth of Nations focused on behavior patterns on more of a macro level, The Theory of Moral Sentiments concentrated on human interrelations on the individual level. Smith through the book analyzes the dichotomy between self-interest and the common good. The “impartial spectator” often clashing with the “that passion arises in our breast”.
Smith in his first treatise does address the human need for praise and admiration. However, praise is the only gratifying and comforting if it is justifiable. In other words, praise must be obtained under conditions in which we do something that is praiseworthy.
As ignorant and groundless praise can give no solid joy, no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination, so, on the contrary, it often gives real comfort to reflect, that though no praise should actually be bestowed upon us, our conduct, however, has been such as to deserve it, and has been in every respect suitable to those measures and rules by which praise and approbation are naturally and commonly bestowed. We are pleased, not only with praise, but with having done what is praise-worthy. We are pleased to think that we have rendered ourselves the natural objects of approbation, though no approbation should ever actually be bestowed upon us: and we are mortified to reflect that we have justly merited the blame of those we live with, though that sentiment should never actually be exerted against us. The man who is conscious to himself that he has exactly observed those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable, reflects with satisfaction on the propriety of his own behaviour. When he views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he thoroughly enters into all the motives which influenced it. He looks back upon every part of it with pleasure and approbation, and though mankind should never be acquainted with what he has done, he regards himself, not so much according to the light in which they actually regard him, as according to that in which they would regard him if they were better informed. He anticipates the applause and admiration which in this case would be bestowed upon him, and he applauds and admires himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place, but which the ignorance of the public alone hinders from taking place, which he knows are the natural and ordinary effects of such conduct, which his imagination strongly connects with it, and which he has acquired a habit of conceiving as something that naturally and in propriety ought to follow from it. Men have voluntarily thrown away life to acquire after death a renown which they could no longer enjoy. Their imagination, in the mean time, anticipated that fame which was in future times to be bestowed upon them. Those applauses which they were never to hear rung in their ears; the thoughts of that admiration, whose effects they were never to feel, played about their hearts, banished from their breasts the strongest of all natural fears, and transported them to perform actions which seem almost beyond the reach of human nature. But in point of reality there is surely no great difference between that approbation which is not to be bestowed till we can no longer enjoy it, and that which, indeed, is never to be bestowed, but which would be bestowed, if the world was ever made to understand properly the real circumstances of our behaviour. If the one often produces such violent effects, we cannot wonder that the other should always be highly regarded. (Page 104, Para 2, The Theory of Moral Sentiments )
As it is clearly demonstrated from the excerpt above, by the convention of our conscience we know when we have earned praise. Our peers can ascertain when our actions align with proper virtue are in-turn worthy of admiration. Undeserved praise for most people is an empty gesture devoid of any true satisfaction. By virtue of our norms, our unwritten but universally understood societal rules, displeasure is experienced by both parties. The individual who receives undue praise is overwhelmed with guilt. In contrast, the observing peers are frustrated by this minor but notable injustice. There are two principles at play eliciting both responses. The party who receives unearned accolades feels guilty as they know they didn’t rightfully earn them. It mirrors the concept that you appreciate more what you work for than what is given to you. Deep down in your subconscious, you know you are cheating someone who is deserving out of their time in the spotlight. Your disgruntled peers know that they got cheated out of justifiable recognition for their hard work. Unjust violation of norms constitutes cheating. Even if the “cheating” wasn’t intentionally perpetrated. Cross-culturally humans in general adversion to cheating.