Wick Communications

‘Good job,’ bad management

In Management on 6 Aug 2010 at 7:39 am

I’m a big believer in praise in the workplace. It seems to me that praising good behavior and good work will beget more of the same. It’s just intuitive. Plus, it makes the office a more pleasant place, don’t you think?

That said, I think I often misuse praise. It’s a much more nuanced concept that most of us grasp.

In fact, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that some praise is not only ineffective, it actually has the opposite of the intended effect. Newspaper consultant Edward Miller talks about this in a newsletter this week and he calls on the research of Alfie Kohn.

Kohn warns that saying “nice job” for every routine task creates an environment of low expectations, can lead to a fear of failure and make folks sort of addicted to “extrinsic motivation.”

Kohn argues that the trick is to reward intrinsic motivation. You want to encourage the people you work with to own their projects. The theory holds that people who feel in control will produce better work more consistently…

Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow talked about some goofy things managers are doing with younger employees in a column headlined, “The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work.” (Sorry, couldn’t find it online.) The point was that bosses are feeling the need to continue the parental stroking that many of us think 20-somethings have been receiving all their lives.

Author and journalist Anita Bruzzese makes similar points in her blog.

I think they are on to something.  It isn’t enough to say good job in passing every time the sports writer spells the quarterback’s name correctly. And you should remember that praise is very often manipulative, even if you mean it in the best possible way.

But I also think it’s possible to misunderstand all this. Praise is good. Far worse than any misdemeanor you can commit by ineffective praise, is the felony of no feedback at all. I’d like to hear how praise is used effectively in your shop.

— Clay


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