Praising Employees: A double-edged sword for leaders
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Praising Employees: A double-edged sword for leaders

We hear a lot about the importance of recognizing employees and making them feel valued. So you’d think praising your people is a foolproof way to keep them motivated and engaged.

But no. No, no, no, no.

For a leader, praising employees is far from foolproof. It’s an exercise full of pitfalls and traps – and can easily end up having the opposite result to what you intended.

How so, you may be asking.

‘You’re so smart’

To answer that question, let’s start by looking at an experiment in behavioral psychology from Columbia University. The researchers broke participants into three groups and gave them a moderately difficult task. Afterward, they told all the groups they succeeded. Group 1 was given additional praise for intelligence (e.g., “You must be smart”). Group 2 was praised for effort (e.g., “You must have worked hard”). Group 3 (the control) got no additional praise.

Then the researchers gave the participants a second, more difficult, task. Students in Group 2, who were praised for their effort, did the best. Those in Group 1, who were praised for their intelligence, did the worst.

Why? The researchers concluded that when people are praised for their intelligence – a “fixed” quality they can’t control – they lose confidence when forced to struggle. They perceive the struggle as evidence that they’re “not smart.” So they don’t enjoy difficult tasks, and they don’t take necessary risks to solve them.

Hmm. Have you ever praised an employee for being “really smart,” for displaying “brainpower”? If so, you’ve set them up to perform worse in the future, not better.

‘You work so hard!’

Fortunately, this same research suggests a way to praise employees that does work: lauding them for their hard work, not any innate quality like intelligence. If we praise people for their work ethic, they’re more likely to take risks and enjoy learning from setbacks.

But the intelligence vs. hard work trap isn’t the only one a leader can fall into.

Praise also backfires when:

It’s manipulative.

Put yourself in the shoes of an employee whose manager says, “The design you did for the new campaign was great. I’d like another one by Friday.” How does that person feel? Praised? Or manipulated?

It’s insincere.

You’re running a meeting and somebody proposes an unrealistic idea. You say, “Good idea, Josh. We’ll consider it but now we need to move on to the next agenda item.” The words sound like praise, but the subtext is, “Bad idea. We’re not even going to discuss it.”

It’s lazy.

John hands you a research report he cobbled together in a couple of hours. He knows it’s just so-so, but because you’re busy you skim it and tell him, “Excellent report. Top-notch.” That’s praise, but how’s John likely to react? He’ll think, “My boss doesn’t care enough about me to read my report carefully.”

Putting it into action

Here’s a look at how you might put these guidelines into play.

Imagine you’ve asked several employees to submit a branding strategy for a new product. You don’t like most of them, but Kevin hits the nail on the head. You call him in and say:

  • “Kevin, I reviewed your draft three times and it seemed more on target each time I read it.” Here, you’re telling Kevin that you take him seriously and you did your homework.
  • “The tagline is memorable and really captures what the product is about. I liked that in the promo copy you boiled the bullets down to just four items. They highlighted the take-home benefits of the product very efficiently.” Here, you’re saying specifically what pleased you, not resorting to gassy, insincere generalities.
  • “I can see that an exceptional amount of high-quality research went into this draft. I’ve always felt that’s the key to nailing a product strategy.” Here, you’re communicating to Kevin that you get what he does to perform so well.

This is praise that will definitely motivate Kevin. You praised him not for being smart, but for toiling to research the market, write a great tagline and sum up the message sharply and concisely.  You didn’t even have to say, “Great job.” The subtext – “I took time to craft this praise, and I get why you’re good” – did that for you.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Why Praise Can Backfire and How to Do It Right,” based on the following research study:

Mueller, C.M. & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 33-52.


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