Does Praising Employees Create Problems?

Our workshop on collaborative performance management includes a discussion about reinforcement. This discussion is often contentious, largely because I question the value of praise. During these discussions, I find that people have been taught to see praise as universally good and useful, and I almost never find anyone who questions this belief.

When I question it, people ask me “what’s the matter with praising people” and I list three concerns.

1 – Dependence. The first concern is that any judgment (praise or punishment) can create undue dependence on the judge. People have been conditioned from primary school to seek out the judgments of their authority figures, far more than they’ve gotten help to develop their own capacity for good judgment. This dependence often creates bottlenecks, as people delay decisions and actions to wait for approval. Also, many people believe that more recent generations have been so conditioned to praise that without it they lose confidence and commitment.

2 – Praise Seeking Behavior. This concern is less common but more troubling. When people are strongly dependent, their primary (sole?) decision criterion is “what decisions or actions will get me praised?” One risk here is that when people face a difficult but necessary conversation with a client or colleague they may incorrectly assume that the more praiseworthy path is to avoid the conversation. Another risk when people (incorrectly) assume that they know what the judge “really wants” and they make potentially damaging choices in pursuit of praise.

3 – Compliance. For me, the most serious concern is the all-too-common risk of compliance. Whenever I ask people about their most “important” relationships at work I always hear boss and client. And, when I ask people about their goal for those relationships, I always hear “make them happy!” But, what’s a person to do when what the boss or client needs to be happy might just be bad for the larger organization? There are far too many stories of corporate bad behavior that was masked by compliance.

When I was a corporate manager and people came looking for feedback, I asked them instead to test their own performance, in the context of their expectations – what was on track, what was off track and why, what would they change and why and how? Then as now, my goal was to build self-directed performers, capable of independent decisions and actions that were aligned with the purpose of the organization. Sometime I got criticized for not praising people, but that seemed like a small price to pay for building top talent.

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