How to stop being a praise junkie

July 10, 2013: 10:26 AM ET

We all like to hear we're doing a good job, but some of us yearn for kudos excessively.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Businessman Holding Star --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

FORTUNE -- How do you know if you're doing a good job at work? Do you rely on praise and constant feedback from your manager as a barometer of your performance?

If so, you might be one of your boss' pet peeves. Supervisors are already stretched thin, often working two or three people's jobs when a few years ago they were just doing one.

"It's exhausting for your boss," says Peggy Klaus, an executive coach and author of The Hard Truth About Soft Skills. "They don't have the time ... to have to constantly reassure you."

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Millennial generation workers, those born in the last two decades of the last millennium, are notorious for having been raised in a praise-heavy environment where every soccer player gets a medal and every child is special. Indeed, a 2010 research paper by psychology professors Jean M. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster found that 30% of today's college students scored as narcissistic on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory vs. just 19% in the early 1980s.

But young workers are hardly the only guilty parties when it comes to craving kind words. "Everyone likes to get praised," Klaus says. "Eventually, you need to feel good from the inside. You have to build up your own reserves of self-esteem."

Casey Cowden, 22, describes herself as a puppy asking to have her head rubbed when she brings her latest accomplishment to the assistant manager in her department at the Charleston County (S.C.) Parks and Recreation Commission. "I really love hearing when I'm doing a good job," says Cowden, who doesn't feel that school prepared her for how to behave in the workplace. "It's affirmation that I'm actually a decent person and I'm doing okay."

For praise junkies like Cowden, career experts suggest a few steps to break the habit.

Praise yourself, privately. Instead of waiting for another person to pat you on the back, keep your own file of accomplishments and kudos, says Kathryn Ullrich, a Silicon Valley-based recruiter and author of Getting to the Top. That may be an email from a satisfied customer or a colleague's recommendation on LinkedIn, but even better is your own record of meeting specific goals you set for yourself. You may want to set up a time log, calendar, or checklist to keep track of your accomplishments. When you need a boost, look over your file to refresh your memory.

"Like an infant learning how to pacify himself, you should learn to give yourself credit instead of looking to others to give you the confidence, the self-esteem, the self-respect," Klaus says.

Learn to bite your tongue. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The second is setting up behavioral cues and reminders to stop you from seeking praise. Maybe that's a post-it note on your desk or a stop sign drawn on the margin of your notebook before you go into your weekly one-on-one with your boss. Do whatever it takes to make you think twice.

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Replace praise with regular contact. Perhaps you don't have a regular meeting with your supervisor. Now is a good time to request one. If you have a consistent opportunity to report your progress on projects, you may have less of a hankering for praise, says Bruce Tulgan, a New Haven, Conn.-based consultant and author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy.

"We call it self-reporting rather than bragging," says Tulgan, who tested a number of solutions to the praise problem and found that regular meetings -- along with clear goals and benchmarks -- can work wonders. "You'd be amazed at how self-sufficient the young praise junkies become."

Celebrate someone else's success. Another surprising remedy: giving praise to a colleague or group of peers. "It has a lot of positive effect," Tulgan says. Not only does sharing your appreciation improve your coworkers' mood and self-esteem, it may encourage them to pay more close attention to your performance and return the favor in the future.

If you're still unconvinced that praise addiction is a problem you need to solve, consider the effect that your neediness has on the people around you at work.

"Instead of making people like you and ingratiating yourself, you're doing the exact opposite," Klaus says. "No one wants to manage you. No one wants to be on a team with you because you're such an energy suck ... It makes you seem very young and very immature."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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