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December 4, 2009

Is Praising Employees Counterproductive?

Filed under: General HR Buzz9:01 am

Many managers think they’ll spoil a good employee with too many compliments. Here’s why those fears are unfounded

There is a fear—an irrational one, among certain managers of praising employees too much. It’s as though they believe that one “attaboy” or “attagirl” too many can spoil a good employee.

Perhaps these fearful managers have in mind those high-profile sports figures who sign huge multiyear contracts only to quickly settle down to lackluster, mediocre performance on the field. But there’s a big difference between a star athlete and your typical salaried employee. The athlete has a contract that commits the franchise to paying his gargantuan salary for years into the future. The employee remains on the job at the boss’s pleasure. How could some positive reinforcement hurt an employee, or for that matter, hurt morale?

For sure, we don’t want to bestow tons of compliments on some employees and ignore others. We don’t want to praise one worker by comparing him or her to another member of the team. And we never want to lift up one employee at the expense of another. But there’s no danger in making a point of thanking and acknowledging employees for specific, observed results. Here are the most common fears associated with praising employees, followed by reasons those fears are unfounded:

If you praise an employee too often, s/he’ll get spoiled. You should mix praise with constructive criticism.

Constructive criticism is essential when things aren’t going well. But when they are, don’t invent areas of improvement that don’t exist. Positive reinforcement is a motivator—ask any elementary schoolteacher. If something goes right, you won’t jinx the good results by talking about them. You may even get your employees to put forth a better effort next time.

If you praise an employee a lot, he or she will slack off.

This is the Major League Baseball argument, but it doesn’t hold water in a knowledge-worker environment where multmillion-dollar salaries aren’t part of the drill. In the unlikely event that an employee backs off the effort after you’ve acknowledged his good work, you can have a conversation to get things back on course. “When I said that you did a great job on the presentation, Jonah, I meant that I loved the direction your work is going. I want you to push even harder the next time out—not to rest on your laurels.” There’s no need to turn off the praise spigot because an employee got confused about the message you were sending.
If you praise an employee, s/he’ll expect more money.

This argument is easily countered if, when an employee asks about a possible uptick in pay, you share with him or her the financial drivers for your business. If you praise an employee and her response is “Thanks for the praise, now can I have a salary increase?” you can show her how the firm’s operating expenses and its revenues tie together—and most important, let her know the specific results that would make bigger salaries possible. Those might include an increase in sales, a reduction in costs, or both. The more specific you can be, the more your employee will understand where the dollars in her paycheck come from, and what she can do to influence her earning power.

Of course, you can’t go around praising people all the time, even when they’re doing a great job, and you should never praise people when they don’t deserve it. If you praise people nonstop your complimentary words will lose their effectiveness as a motivator. If you give praise when it’s not deserved, you’ll lose your credibility and undermine the whole group’s efforts.

It’s tempting, when you’re intimately aware of the strengths and weaknesses, successes and ball-drops of a team of people, to focus on what needs improving. It may even be human nature to do so. But that isn’t good management. People need to hear about what they’re doing right, and the end of the year is a great time to do it. Better yet, do it consistently, and chances are, you’ll see consistent, strong results.

Written by Liz Ryan, Business Week


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