Can praise be de-motivating?

Gasp!  Surely this is heresy!  Aren’t coaches and trainers always telling managers to praise people more?  And yes, when we do, we are often met with responses along the lines of, ‘listen, this is a business, not a game show you know’.  Or just ‘ew….’  And then we come back with how when kids are small they get praised frequently, and for the smallest thing -‘you did it in your potty!  Clever girl!’ As they grow up the praise gets less and less frequent – ‘must try harder’, ‘could do better’.  By the time they’re at work it’s flipped right round – ‘well frankly they should be grateful they’ve got a job in this economy’.  All of this is sadly true.  So we encourage managers to praise.  Yet we have to very careful about how this is done.  Research suggests several ways in which praise can de-motivate, some of which are blindingly obvious; some are not:

  • We can spot a phoney! Really?  Well, I’ll be…
  • Being praised in a happy-clappy, high-five, kinda way can be cringe-worthy;
  • If A is always being praised and C isn’t, the sense of unfairness can be very de-motivating;
  • If the praise is dished out in a ‘do-this-and-you’ll-get-that’ carrot + stick way so as to achieve control, it can de-motivate, as people have a strong drive for autonomy;
  • If the praise is the bread in a, ahem, ‘feedback sandwich’, it may well be ignored as the recipient waits for the negative comments to land.

So what to do?  Suggestions:

  • If you can’t say it sincerely don’t say it at all;
  • Praise the behaviour, stating what you actually observed;
  • Identify what the person actually did and said – we’re after verbs here, not adjectives (instead of ‘you were very empathetic with Clive when he had a problem’, try ‘I observed you really listening to what Clive had to say, and gently encouraging him to explain his problem’);
  • End by saying why the behaviour is praise-worthy – the effect/impact/results it has had (instead of ‘well done, keep it up!’ try ‘I’ve noticed Clive is making more effort now’).
  • And that’s it!  Step away from the praise podium right now before you go all gooey or get tempted to serve up a sandwich.

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