The right way for managers to give praise

A little encouragement is appreciated for dull tasks—but for more absorbing duties, praise can actually sap motivation

 
Manager looking at an employee with a sign on his back reading “keep off”
(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

There are all types of managers. At one end of the spectrum, we have those that can’t even utter a ‘hi’ to their employees in the hallway, let alone praise them for a job well done. Then, there are managers who freely praise their employees, even for trivial tasks, to show their appreciation.

A recent study by the University of Greenwich’s Business School found that praise from the boss can actually be demotivating in certain situations. The study asked participants to complete a questionnaire at the end of their work day, every day, for two weeks. Questions included the specific tasks they worked on during the day, and a self-appraisal of their motivation and any rewards they expected to receive for the tasks.

What the researchers found was that participants who had expected to receive praise for complex tasks reported lower intrinsic motivation. They enjoyed the task less and had less desire to do it, while individuals who had to work on repetitive, boring tasks experienced a jolt in intrinsic motivation when they expected praise from their boss.

So why is that? Dr. Rebecca Hewett, senior lecturer in human resources management with the university thinks it’s because the complex tasks are interesting enough in themselves to be motivating, so that extra encouragement is unwanted. It’s damaging in fact, since it can actually rob staff of their own inner drive, Hewett says. A simple “thank you” for the dull tasks, however, is appreciated because the task itself is not motivating. The extra encouragement then becomes helpful.

“We all have to do boring tasks in our working day, and this research suggests that managers can help to motivate us to do those simply by providing a bit of encouragement or saying ‘thank you,’” Hewett explains. “For those more complex tasks, on the other hand, it would better to let us get on with it.”

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