When Workplace Praise Isn’t Even-Handed

Articles online touting the importance of praising employees abound. One I found by Justin Bariso on Quartz at Work notes the impact praise can make when it highlights a specific accomplishment in place of the generic “Good job!”

But what I haven’t seen addressed is what to do when praise from a manager isn’t even-handed, meaning the manager uses it as a tool to prop up an under-performing favorite or personal friend, or to create a false equivalency between two employees with vastly different levels of performance. I’ve been on the receiving end of both of those experiences. I’m currently experiencing the frustration of watching as praise is delivered to an undeserving person. I watched last Friday as the head of my department sent an e-mail to the employee he’s desperately trying to prop up, praising an at-best mediocre opinion piece with “Excellent article! Right on the mark.” This “article” is, metrics-wise, the least-read piece of the current issue. That laudatory e-mail was copied to me, along with a handful of others, including the CEO of our division of the company! Over-compensating much? It seems like the management version of “The lady doth protest too much” when unwarranted or exaggerated praise is not just given, but publicly given. It’s as if the department head knows his favorite is in trouble and under-performing, and hopes that with enough public, over-the-top praise, he can convince everyone otherwise.

Deciding who gets praise and how extreme and publicly broadcasted that praise should be is subjective. But is there anything that can be taught in leadership development seminars to make sure it is used judiciously and fairly? Praise is such a powerful tool to inspire ever-greater performance that to see it over-used or used improperly is to see that power diminished. It’s like crying wolf. You use praise to praise the unworthy and unimpressive, and then when it’s truly warranted, no one pays attention.

One thought, to begin with, is to consider whether the “accomplishment” was substantial enough to warrant public praise. In the case of my department head, it might have been more appropriate to forego copying all of us, plus the CEO. That kind of public recognition should be reserved for a substantial successful deliverable, such as a marketing plan that an employee devised and spearheaded the rollout of, and has the numbers to prove it was a huge success. Or an employee who streamlined an operating process that resulted in impressive money saved after just six months. An article the manager liked, or a business report the manager found interesting and useful, could be praised with a phone call or e-mail solely to the employee. Or even just a passing “Good job on that report” when the manager happens to run into the employee at the coffee machine.

Uneven praise isn’t as serious an inequality as uneven pay, but it is serious, as praise affects employee morale. If it’s used to buoy under-performers, they will get the message that they don’t need to do better, and that doing well on an assignment once in a while is enough to sustain employment. Meanwhile, other higher-performing employees may become demoralized. They’ve worked hard and delivered their assignments consistently on time and in good condition, and have been passed over for praise in favor of a chronic under-performer.

After considering whether to do a module in leadership development seminars on the power of praise and how to use it effectively, executives should learn how their personal biases affect the people they are most likely to praise. For example, we have a contributor who is a highly accomplished person, holds both medical and law degrees, and has written articles that were in-depth and challenging but did not receive high readership levels. There was far less praise for this contributor than was shown to the employee who received the unwarranted praise for a similarly poorly read piece.

How do you train managers to use praise judiciously, so it becomes a tool to inspire ever-greater performance across departments, and boost, rather than deflate, morale?

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