Should you praise your employees frequently to encourage them to perform better? You might think so, but the answer is actually no. While praise is nice to receive, the latest research in brain science discounts its effect on performance.
Most people are intrinsically motivated to do the best they can, because it's important for maintaining a positive self-image and because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment, and a sense of mastery and self-fulfillment. As business performance consultant Charles S. Jacobs writes in Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons From the Latest in Brain Science, "Rewarding people with praise isn't going to make them perform any better ... Dopamine, the pleasure chemical in the brain, is released when we’re fully engaged in our work, not when we receive a reward."
Furthermore, studies cited in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink even show that even extrinsic rewards, like praise, tend to reduce intrinsic motivation.
The Negative Effect of Criticism
While praise doesn't necessarily boost performance, it is an important antidote to counteract the negative effects of criticism. And that negative effect is substantial. Research shows, for example, that having a boss who berates them is one of the reasons 66 percent of employees say their work performance declined and 78 percent report that their commitment to the company declined.
But it's not just berating bosses who affect employee performance. It's safe to say that any critical comments about job performance can have a negative effect. For example, research conducted by Satoris Culbertson at Kansas State University has determined what we knew intuitively all along: that nobody—not even people who are motivated to learn—likes negative performance reviews. So managers need to be careful when giving feedback to employees, Culbertson says, because it can affect motivation, commitment and performance.
What's more, research at the University of Minnesota shows that negative events at work, such as being criticized, have a more powerful effect on an employee's mood than do positive events, such as receiving praise. The study reveals that employees react five times more strongly to a negative encounter with their boss than to a positive encounter. Moods are the dimmer switch of performance, so be careful how you use that dial.
Balancing Criticism and Praise
Of course, as a business owner, you have to give feedback from time to time to correct how a task or project is being approached or to change a behavior when necessary. So while you can't eliminate criticism altogether, it's important to find the right balance between criticism and praise.
Fortunately, there's a formula to help you get it right: The correct mix for maintaining productivity is three positive comments for each negative comment. This formula, known as the "Losada ratio," was named after Dr. Marcial Losada, who studied the interplay of positive interactions and economic well-being. According to researchers, the Losada ratio of three positives for every negative feedback appears to be the minimum necessary to achieve high performance.
In the Harvard Business Review article, "The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio," authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman cite a study by Losada and his team involving 60 strategic business management teams from a large information processing corporation. What determined the highest performing and lowest performing teams was the ratio of positive to negative comments they received. The average ratio for the most successful teams was almost six positive comments for every negative one. The lowest performing teams had almost three negative comments for every positive one.
Whatever the best ratio is, it's clear that when negative comments exceed positive ones, performance is hindered. So every time you have to give negative feedback to an employee, remember to balance that feedback with positive comments. The following seven tips can help you deliver necessary criticism without doing any harm either to your company or the people on the receiving end.
1. Analyze your reasons for criticizing. Before you deliver a critical remark, stop for a moment to consider your reasons for the criticism. Most of the time, we deliver criticism with good intentions—we want to help the person improve their performance at work. But sometimes, the criticism may stem from personal needs, such as a desire to boost our own ego, or to raise our status in the eyes of the other, or a need to be right. And sometimes, the criticism may be the consequence of pent-up frustrations that have nothing to do with the person you're criticizing—the person becomes a convenient scapegoat to let loose some steam when you're having a bad day.
Raising your self-awareness regarding your motivation to criticize will help you avoid criticism for the wrong reasons.
2. Practice feedback etiquette. It's helpful to remind ourselves of some of the basic rules for providing criticism:
- Always do it in private.
- Don't do it via email. Always talk to the person face to face.
- Be succinct. Don't lecture.
- Don't overgeneralize. Never say, "You're always late," or "I can never rely on you."
3. Be a straight shooter. Don't deliver implicit criticism. For example, don't compare the person unfavorably to someone else, give feedback disguised as advice, coach without permission or set out to "teach" something. Don't ambush people either: Let them know when you're setting up a meeting that the purpose is for you to give them some feedback.
At the meeting, deliver the criticism in a straightforward manner. Mixing praise with criticism doesn't work, so using words such as "but," "although" and "however" cancel anything positive you have said.
It's much better to deal with the issue head on and offer solutions or suggestions on how to fix whatever doesn't work. For example, instead of saying, "I liked how you explained the project, but some of your answers weren't clear," say this: "Mike, your answer on the deliverables wasn't clear. I suggest you send a follow-up email to provide all the details that weren't mentioned." That's straight talk. People respect this.
Also, don't use the criticism sandwich—it's an outdated management practice that doesn't work for two reasons. First, most employees see it as a management gimmick that comes across as insincere. So even though your intentions are to soften the blow of critical comments, it's an artificial tactic. Second, the criticism sandwich isn't effective anyway, because people immediately forget the praise and focus on the negative comments. (For more on the criticism sandwich, see my previous article, "The Criticism Sandwich: A Stale Idea.")
4. Don't be known as a serial criticizer. If you're known as someone who habitually criticizes everything, any feedback you give will fall on deaf ears. Not everything needs to be criticized, so be selective in your criticism. Letting people do the work their own way is often a wise move.
5. Be timely. If you need to provide negative feedback on performance, do it on a timely basis, that is, while the event is still fresh. Waiting too long, until you have accumulated more "ammunition," is a surefire way to trigger a negative reaction.
6. Don't assume the role of therapist. Guard against crossing a personal boundary when delivering feedback. If the employee's performance is negatively affected by personal problems at home, for example, show that you care, but don't offer advice. It's tempting to get involved, but this is a slippery slope. Recommend outside professional assistance, if necessary.
7. Default to kindness. Don't criticize when you're angry, as you're likely to deliver criticism more harshly than you intended. Also, don't criticize on a Friday afternoon, as it's likely to affect the employee's entire family when he or she goes home for the weekend. Above all, if you tell an employee, "I want to meet with you to discuss your performance," don't schedule the meeting for days later. The employee waiting for the meeting will likely be consumed with anxiety at the prospect of hearing negative feedback. Meeting with the person without undue delay once you've alerted them that the meeting is about a performance issue is not only better for productivity, but it's the Mensch thing to do. Always default to kindness.
The strong relationships you build with your employees are a key factor in developing their loyalty and commitment to you. But nothing can weaken that relationship faster than critical remarks. As author and leadership advisor Robin Sharma once said, "Negative feedback can make us bitter or better." To avoid the bitter part, focus more on reducing negative events such as criticism, rather than on increasing the frequency of positive events, such as praise.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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