Research has generally shown that ‘carrots’ are better motivators in terms of encouraging good behaviour from staff, and ‘sticks’ are not so good at motivating staff. So praising good work by staff seems to be a better way of getting them to do what you want than criticism of their work or blaming them for failures. But simply saying “well done” may have its pitfalls!
Management mostly use the operant conditioning model of learning. In this, reinforcement encourages a particular behaviour and punishment discourages the behaviour. Simple! From that you’d assume that incentives or rewards and praise in the workplace would be successful in getting the best results from staff. However, research indicates that rewards are effective at producing only temporary compliance – they don’t seem to produce lasting change in attitudes or behaviour. And research shows that people who expect to receive a reward don’t perform as well as those who expect nothing! So people expecting praise for doing their job, will, in the fullness of time, do it less well!
One technique that many classroom teachers use to ensure their children behave correctly is assertive discipline. With this technique, clear rules are laid out, and then children are rewarded (praised) for following the rules. For example, one group of children are sitting quietly waiting for the teacher while another group are chatting. Rather than telling the noisy group to settle down, the teacher will say something like: “Look how well these children are sitting”. The inappropriately behaving group learn that to get attention and approval they need to follow the rules.
From that, we might learn that in the work place, bosses should recognize and comment on desirable behaviour from their staff. Basically, they should be offering praise for people doing the right thing.
Attachment parenting takes a different view of praise – and, although it’s obviously aimed at young children, it has an application with staff. So, rather than saying “good boy”, you say what you can see and feel. So, you might say, “you sorted out your pencils and crayons and put them in separate boxes. That’s impressive organization”. The idea behind it is that the praise of “good boy” could easily be taken away by saying “naughty boy” at a different time. Descriptive praise can’t be taken away. So, practice saying things like: “I see you made the IMS system perform more efficiently. That takes determination.”
But what makes a person behave in a particular way? What makes them stay late until piece of work is completed, or go above and beyond their usual role? It seems there are intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivation comes because you expect a reward when the task is complete. Intrinsic motivation comes because the task itself is motivating. Intrinsic motivation is really all about autonomy. You control what you do and when you do it. But, once you start rewarding people who are intrinsically motivated, it demotivates them! There is, apparently, a way round this, you can randomly reward them. So again, praising people seems to have a surprising and opposite effect to what you’d expect.
Mark Tyrrell in his blog “Why telling people how wonderful they are isn’t always a good idea” at http://www.unk.com/blog/dangers-of-excessive-praise/?utm_source=clearthinking&utm_medium=email&utm_content=171&utm_campaign=Clear%2BThinking%2Bnewsletter looks further at why saying, “well done” isn’t such a good idea.
He reminds us of a study, published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in which children were rewarded for simply ‘doing their own thing’ – drawing, playing, and so on. But when the rewards were discontinued, the children tended to lose interest in their preferred activity.
His conclusions were:
- Don’t over-praise people (or yourself) for doing stuff they should be doing anyway. Sure, it’s good I don’t go around stealing from people, but it should also be my normal behaviour. So be discerning and selective with praise. Ask yourself: “Am I being praised (or praising someone else) for normal human behaviour?”
- Focus on the normality of the desirable behaviour rather than implying that it’s exceptional and therefore not something that can happen often.
- Don’t expect praise for everything and don’t always praise others, or you’ll be fostering praise dependency and an inability to pursue excellence for its own sake. If you don’t praise all the time, the praise you do offer has more potency.
- Focus on what is actually within a person’s control (like hard work) rather on nebulous and essentially meaningless characteristics. “You have worked really hard!” implies that success was something they could consciously influence. Telling someone they are “fabulous” for completing something gives them no meaningful information about their input.
“The right kind of praise at the right time and in the right quantity can help you develop the habit of excellence, but a diet of uncontrolled praise won’t do you or anyone else any favours.”
It’s interesting to think how this can be applied to staff working on the mainframe, network, and distributed platforms to get the best out of them.