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When Praise Backfires

When Praise Backfires
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First Published: Sun, Jul 31 2011. 08 40 PM IST

Trojan Horse: Praise mails can be dangerous ammunition in the hands of wily non-performers.
Trojan Horse: Praise mails can be dangerous ammunition in the hands of wily non-performers.
Updated: Sun, Jul 31 2011. 08 40 PM IST
The normally mild Mr Business Head stormed into Mr CEO’s room. His agitation showed in his flushed face. He had with him a piece of paper—it seemed to be a copy of an email. “This is just not on,” he fumed. “How could you do this, Boss? Your email will send the wrong signal and lull non-performer Subordinate back into his zone of complacent inactivity.”
Mr Business Head had a point. After a joint meeting the previous day with Mr CEO, most of which was spent counselling Subordinate on his poor performance, Mr Business Head had woken up not only to an email Subordinate had sent out claiming some achievement, but also—in an attempt to hopefully pep up disheartened Subordinate’s morale—a follow-up congratulatory email from Mr CEO himself, marked to all.
Result: One agitated Mr Business Head.
When wires cross
Trojan Horse: Praise mails can be dangerous ammunition in the hands of wily non-performers.
All of us have been brought up to believe that praising is a sure-fire panacea for motivation. The “one-minute praise”—which author Kenneth Blanchard so eloquently argued for in The One Minute Manager, and which so many generations of managers have made their motivation mantra—the sagacious wisdom of praising in public and reprimanding in private, and pulpit speeches of leaders showering praise on their teams when felicitated at award ceremonies, are all minted from the same coin.
But rarely do we dwell on the darker side of praise—the danger of casual praise, as Mr Business Head so aptly pointed out to Mr CEO. And remember, the one-minute manager is often deftly tackled by the 59-second employee!
Feedback to employees must be consistent and aligned. A rap on the knuckles followed by a pat on the back is okay in theory, but when these come in quick succession and from different points in the chain of command, it can end up devaluing the hard feedback and undermining the feedback giver’s authority. More so if the public pat came from someone higher in the chain.
The wily hoarder thrives in this environment. A seemingly innocuous email sent out with a sundry set of even mediocre achievements invariably gets him many casual “Well Done” wah-wahs—some indulgently given, others grudgingly, lest the non-acknowledgement of it signal a jealous sulk. These could be carefully hoarded for future use, prime ammunition for when the appraisal discussions begin. They may be proactively proffered to unsuspecting appraisers, throwing them off-track even before they launch the appraisal tirade. The praise mails are sure-fire silver bullets when the wily hoarder’s performance comes under threat, and work best when teamed with a “but the super boss thinks I am great” wide-eyed wonder.
For those in the performance improvement plan (PIP) dock, the “casual praise” mails are lifesavers. If interjected at the right time, with a soulful expression, they can quite take the steam out of a boss in full flow, determined to nail you with PIP evidence. Many a manager wanting to let go of an employee on the grounds of poor performance finds not a shred of previously documented negative feedback; worse, a litany of casual praises end up throwing water on the manager’s aspirations of making a watertight case of poor performance. A senior legal counsel, who helps organizations put together such documentation, once told me of his frustration at seeing a mammoth list of chairman’s award winners, with the names of target employees well ensconced in the middle.
Thrown off-track
And you must have come across the stealthy stealer. He is a past master at cornering praise. His speciality—to be the first off the block outlining the unsuspecting team’s wins and achievements with an email aimed straight for the organizational who’s who. The team leader of course is given his due (complete with name in bold), but all others, including the hardest workers, are consigned to fine print buried six paragraphs deep in the declaration of victory missive. And when the resultant flurry of congratulatory kudos comes, in this era of email overload and short attention spans, it is the author, our stealthy stealer, who grabs the “nameshare”. Lucky is the boss who even gets a “name-in”.
Finally, epitomizing the cadre of “casual praisers” are the bosses with the smiley targets. They pace the floor, worried at not having met their quota of at least 20 “well dones” in the month. The casualty in this frenetic search for smiley winners is the quality of the work that merits praise. Mediocrity wins. Performance excellence gets well and truly buried with a manager who fails to differentiate between a simple thank you and a devalued good job.
The casual praise syndrome is ably abetted by the “I make a living by congratulating” brigade. Management schools thrive on class participation. In organizations, it is EP or “email participation, with cc to all” that is big. Our congratulations champions are past masters at this, and go out of their way to mark e-attendance, waxing lyrical on the Net, with a couple of quotations thrown in for good measure.
Then, of course, there are those extremely rare individuals who truly represent the soul of the company. They live and die for the cause and desire no praise as they go about doing what needs to be done. On a personal note, we lost just such a friend last week, a veritable saint in a world filled with praise seekers and casual praise givers.
Genuine praise, of course, is a powerful tool. Many a leader has worked motivational wonders with it, and sometimes only with it. But next time you raise fingers to tap out a casual “great job”, or a few hearty words of praise, do stay a while and check the potential ammunition you could create. Then, and only then, mindfully as the spiritual gurus would say, send out your reply salvo into the world. The casual praise trap will never trip you up then.
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.
Write to Hema at hrmatters@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jul 31 2011. 08 40 PM IST