PhotoOne of the complaints you might not hear too often is that your friend or family member’s boss is too nice. Movies, television, and other forms of pop culture love making bosses into the bad guy, but it turns out that a boss that gives too much praise for your work could be just as bad. A new study shows that too much praise in the workplace can actually lower work ethic and reduce a worker’s drive to get things done.

You might be wondering how being praised for your work could be a bad thing. Well, let’s backtrack a little bit to explain. Praise can be a very good and effective tool in the work environment, but only for certain kinds of tasks. For example, smaller tasks, or ones that are more repetitive, work well with verbal rewards because there is not a great deal of accomplishment that comes with completing them. More complex or trying tasks are a different story.

“While managers can use these ‘verbal rewards’ – often as simple as saying ‘thank you’ – for simple or repetitive tasks, this approach can backfire for complex tasks and projects. That is likely to be because the latter are interesting enough in themselves to be motivating, so that extra encouragement is unwanted. In fact, it can even rob staff of their own inner drive,” said Dr. Rebecca Hewett, Senior Lecturer in Human Resources Management at the University of Greenwich.

Intrinsic motivation vs. extra encouragement

Greenwich and her colleagues tested this claim by asking a sample of workers to answer a short questionnaire at the end of their work day. Participants were asked about any projects or tasks they worked on that day and what kind of reward or motivation they expected to receive afterward.

Researchers found that participants had less intrinsic motivation to do a complex task if they expected to receive a verbal reward for it. For simple tasks, however, intrinsic motivation was higher when verbal rewards were expected.

This difference suggests that participants did not want verbal rewards for complex tasks because completing them was enough of a reward in and of itself. More menial tasks benefit from verbal rewards because it gives extra encouragement to get the job done.

“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’. For those more complex tasks, on the other hand, it would be better to let us get on with it,” said Hewett.

The full study has been published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour

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