Praise is a hazardous substance, so apply it with care
Column: New research shows that public praise generates envy in colleagues, not motivation
“If you watch the faces of journalists when a colleague is told that their latest article was a marvel . . . you may see a slight puckering around the mouth as if they had just sucked on a lemon.” Photograph: Getty Images
Not long ago I was in a private meeting with a chief executive and some of his lieutenants. Before the session got going, he turned to one of them and said: “Excellent job on xyz. You nailed it. Well done!”
This is exactly how praise is supposed to be given. It was immediate, specific and done in public.
I looked at the man who had just been praised and fancied I saw him get a little bigger. I then looked at the others around the table and fancied that each of them had shrunk a bit.
I’ve often observed this effect. If you watch the faces of journalists when a colleague is told that their latest article was a marvel, they pretend to take it in their stride: they may even manage to splutter out agreement that the article was indeed brilliant.
But if you look carefully, you may see a slight puckering around the mouth as if they had just sucked on a lemon.
On praise, the experts have got it wrong: it should almost never be given in public. It is a dangerous, corrosive substance that has a powerful and positive effect on the person it is aimed at but is better administered behind closed doors.
I’ve always suspected this to be the case but now there is data to prove it. According to a new study, the collateral damage inflicted by praise is even worse than I had thought. Not only do bystanders take against the person being praised, they instantly dislike the person handing it out. They envy the recipient and resent the giver.
The study comes from Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta – the same team that produced one of my favourite management insights of all time. A couple of years ago they proved that when it comes to flattery, there is no such thing as too much. Even if we know it is insincere, we willingly go on lapping it up – however big the helping.
Now they have applied themselves to the side-effects of flattery on innocent bystanders. The study, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, describes an experiment in which several hundred students were told to imagine being in a clothing store and hearing an assistant tell another shopper that they looked fabulous.
They were asked first for an immediate response and then for a more considered one. The gut reactions were all negative, while the more considered ones – ie the ones fit for public consumption – were rather less so. Still more revealing was the fact that the more closely the student was connected to the person being flattered – if they went to the same university, say – the greater the envy.