Is praise better behind closed doors?

by Viv Cole on September 30, 2013

Lucy Kellaway’s recent article in the FT “Compliments are always best made behind closed doors” challenges the conventional wisdom that workplace praise is best given in public and criticism in private. Whilst this maxim may be true for the praise giver and receiver, research by Chan & Sengupta “Observing Flattery: A Social Comparison Perspective” shows that we need to be careful about the collateral damage to bystanders.

Essentially the praise being given will have an impact on the bystanders, usually one of envy towards the person being praised and resentment towards the praiser (“this shows they don’t appreciate me/ what I’ve done”). If that’s what the praiser intends to happen, then that’s fine, it’s just that many praisers won’t be aware of this unintended consequence.

One useful metaphor for managers is that people broadly fall into one of two categories:

  • External referencers: those who gain satisfaction in their own performance from the reaction/ feedback they get
  • Internal referencers: those who gain satisfaction in their own performance from in relation to their own personal standards.

As a manager it’s important to know the personalities of the people you manage, especially¬†as something that you intend to be motivational could easily fail to have the impact you desire. I don’t want to put off any managers from making an effort to praise more,¬† but publicly praising an internal referencer could be a lose-lose-lose for you, the person and bystanders. Well directed and sincerely meant praise is a powerful force for better workplaces, it just needs some smart application, and behind closed doors seems to be a good place to start.

As someone who has often questioned the value of “Employee of the week” awards and glowing profiles in newsletters, this is a welcome piece of research. It will be interesting to see how further research unpicks the nuances of effective praise in the workplace. Any implications for praise given via social media, I wonder?

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