Is Praise The Great Motivator It’s Cracked Up to Be? Not Always.
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Is Praise The Great Motivator It’s Cracked Up to Be? Not Always.

In his insightful book, “Management of the Absurd,” psychologist, former CEO and college dean Richard Farson questions many common assumptions, including what he describes as “the cherished idea that people work better after being praised.”

Praise, when used as a management technique, may not achieve its desired result, says Farson. Managers who believe a generic pat on the back and a chipper “‘atta boy” will motive people to work harder should consider the following:

    • Praise may be perceived as a threat.

Ever notice how people respond to praise? Often, they react with discomfort or unease. A common response to praise is, “Oh, I don’t deserve that.” Farson says people react defensively because praise may be perceived as a threat. It’s an evaluation of sorts – and even if it’s a positive evaluation, it makes people nervous. Additionally, when you praise people you are often trying to motivate them, to change them. And the threat of change is nearly always disquieting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t bestow praise. But do try to observe people’s reactions and learn the situations where it works best and the individuals who respond well to it.

    • Praise may be a way of gaining status over people.

Instead of reassuring people of their worth, praise sometimes establishes that you’re in a position to sit in judgment. Farson says a manager evaluating an employee needs to be sensitive to this. Even if the evaluation is positive, the employee may feel diminished if it seems the manager is merely asserting his own status.

    • Praise may constrict creativity rather than free it.

When an employee comes to take rewards for granted, they cease to be rewards. The same is true for praise. When we expect it, and we routinely get it, it no longer serves to motive us or unleash our creativity. Farson says what really does release creativity and promote achievement is when a manager gets involved in the employee’s work – learning what direction the work is taking, the problems and possibilities it presents, and how the employee is dealing with it.

    • Praise may be associated with criticism.

This happens when we use praise to sugarcoat blame. “I’m really pleased with your work Fred, but…” Farson says since this is a favorite technique of parents and teachers, many of us are conditioned from early childhood that when we are praised, we should automatically prepare for a reproof.

Managers whose praise is genuine, specific to what they’re praising (“Good work on the Harrison inventory system, Bob. Now it will be more accurate than ever!”) and not a warm-up act for criticism, should find their praise welcome by employees.

Adapted from “Management of the Absurd,” by Richard Farson.

photo credit: _gee_

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