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If you find yourself promoted to a management position, you will quickly encounter the need to motivate and encourage those you manage.

It is commonly believed that praise is an essential management tool. This may be a mistake. Several studies have shown that praise can, in fact, be counter-productive. It seems that while some employees respond favorably to praise, a majority are either neutral or negative toward this form of managerial reinforcement.

This could possibly be a result of social conditioning against praise. Frequently, bad news is given after a reinforcing comment is made. For example:

“Bob, you’ve been a great help around here and you have a lot of commendable qualities…. but we’re going to have to let you go.

The good news/bad news structure leaves some people anxious when praise is received; they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some report being suspicious about praise, citing concerns that a manager might be trying to “let them down easy” about some other traumatic event to come.

Another hypothesis has to do with social positioning. Some employees reported feeling uncomfortable about being praised for their work by a supervisor because they felt the supervisor was “judging them”, even if favorably. It seems that the act of delivering praise implicitly defines a measure of authority owned by the praiser over the praised. This can be seen particularly when a peer provides praise; peer praise is resented by a substantial percentage of employees. I.e. “who is so-and-so to evaluate my work.”

A third cause appears to be poor supervisory skills. Employees who report negative feelings toward praise sometimes state that the praise was “insincere” or “insufficient” to what the employee felt was deserved. Clearly, the manner in which the praise is delivered by a supervisor determines how effective it ultimately is. It is also possible that different employees have different personal rules about how praise should best be given, possibly based on childhood interactions with their parents.

In summary, praise will be most effective if it is:

  1. used carefully (never carelessly),
  2. delivered in a sincere and open manner,
  3. given in close time proximity to the behavior praised,
  4. given in an informal setting (to avoid the good news/bad news rebound effect), and
  5. *never* given as part of a good news/bad news pair.

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