The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that "Some are made modest by great praise, others insolent." This is certainly true in the workplace, where praise can make employees feel competent and valued or completely backfire, with the person being praised developing a negative attitude. You don't have to walk on eggshells wondering whether or not your praise will have the desired effect, however. It turns out that the manner in which you praise an employee can make all the difference.
Person Versus Process
The way you give praise can affect an employee's response to later failures, according to an April 2011 study published in the "British Journal of Educational Psychology." The person-centered "You are so smart" can backfire, whereas a process-oriented comment such as "You analyzed the data very accurately" is ultimately more supportive and does not tend to result in a negative attitude. This is because once failure occurs, as it eventually will, praise that is person-centered can make the person feel that the failure is related to a personal failing, rather than a task-related oversight.
Alfie Kohn, in his book "Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'a, Praise and Other Bribes," equates giving vague praise such as "Good!" to manage behavior with treating people like pets. Although Kohn is writing about parents and children, the principle is also applicable to the workplace. Some employees may feel manipulated and even demeaned by praise, and therefore resent it. Avoid this problem by giving praise that is authentic and specifically addresses areas of exceptional effort.
One morning, a supervisor enters the office and states, "Mary, great job setting up the meeting room just like I told you." Mary reacts by rolling her eyes, which is not the response the supervisor expected. The problem with praising employees for mere compliance is that it is often perceived as controlling. Employees are unlikely to communicate this directly, so instead the result is often a negative attitude.
If you frequently praise employees, people who rely heavily on external motivation may come to depend on it. On days when you are busy and don't have a positive word for their work, such employees may begin to think you are not recognizing their work or that they are not performing up to your expectations. Negative behavior can be the result. Encourage employees to find intrinsic value in their work by frequently giving them tasks they enjoy rather than relying on you to make them feel comfortable about their work performance.
- British Journal of Educational Psychology: Is No Praise Good Praise? Effects of Positive Feedback on Children's and University Students’ Responses to Subsequent Failures
- "Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A'a, Praise and Other Bribes"; Alfie Kohn
- IntrinsicMotivation.net: Beyond Talk -- Creating Autonomous Motivation through Self-Determination Theory
- Brainy Quote: Praise Quotes
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.