Does Praising Employees Send a Mixed Message?

Praise can reinforce a positive employee behavior when done right, but after an extended period of time, employees may lose sight of their initial motivation, making the act of giving praise an elusive and important management skill.

Managers who consistently rely on praise as a reinforcer of positive behavior may find that some employees are perceiving their praise as ambiguous, inconsistent and unclear. If praise isn’t thought to be genuine and forthright, managers may ultimately be doing their employees a disservice, according to Juan Kingsbury, owner of talent consultancy Project A.

“Praise can perpetuate C-level players,” Kingsbury said. “It can come off insincere and enable mediocre performance, giving the impression that management doesn’t really care. Employees may only respond to praise and not the demands of the job, meaning they will only try hard if someone is watching.”

Effective praise is specific, revealing to an employee that a certain action or thought is in some way positive, according to Kingsbury. Poor praise, on the other hand, entails a manager making a general statement, rendering it difficult for an employee to discern the qualities for which he or she is being recognized.

Employees who know and use their strengths also tend to be better performers. In the 2013 Gallup survey “The Secret of Higher Performance,” of the 65,672 employees surveyed, employees who received feedback on their strengths had turnover rates that were 14.9 percent lower than for employees who did not receive any performance feedback.

For employees, however, merely knowing something is right or wrong is not enough to impact performance. For employees to understand and internalize the message, they need to know what workplace actions should be repeated, ceased or conducted differently going forward, Kingsbury said.

“Praise done right can maintain or improve productivity because it reinforces expectations,” Kingsbury said. “Motivation is a little trickier. Praise should not be expected to motivate someone. Praise should be the byproduct of someone performing at a high level. A person that is motivated does not need praise, but a ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”

Praise will often be ineffective if an employee attempts to use the temporary clout for personal gain, instead of for a larger team effort, according to Larry Adams, president of the Southern Building Material Association Inc. He said if a manager is sincere and specific with his or her praise, however, most employees will perceive the compliment as it was intended.

“By always looking for what workers are doing right and not wrong, it helps my ability to praise,” Adams said. “Praising also softens the times when you have to correctly and constructively discuss non-productive behavior. I have always believed that being a good manager starts with really focusing on ‘how do I like to be treated.’ Not everyone will respond in the same way, but it has always helped my disposition.”

In a study of more than 160,576 employees working for 30,661 leaders at hundreds of companies around the world, there was no correlation between a “nice” leader, which is a leader who often praises his or her employees, and highly committed, engaged and productive employees, according to a 2013 Harvard Business Review blog titled “Nice or Tough: Which Approach Engages Employees Most?”

The study found that effective leaders are a mix of both tough and nice, knowing how to demand a great deal from their employees while being perceived as considerate, trusting and collaborative. While it’s important for a leader to be perceived as nice, according to the study, an organization’s leaders should not be afraid of establishing demanding and strict goals.

“Praise is just a tool, and like any tool, we should only use it if it helps get the job done,” Kingsbury said. “Whatever your reason, [praise] should align with getting the job done as the company needs it. Praise people who are doing that, but keep it genuine, specific and performance-related. Praise is not just about making people feel good, it’s about reinforcing behavior.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.