DO NOT Praise Your Employees!

Or should you?

Throughout my entire life thus far, the number of praises that I have ever received from my father can be counted with one hand. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been called “useless” more times than I can remember. Undoubtedly, he was the undisputed Tiger Father.

Ever since I entered my schooling years, my childhood was a sprint towards excellent academic grades and nothing else. My humble efforts at art and music were scoffed at and disregarded. The constant nagging from my father during a television break often resulted in another quiet session of hitting the books. Getting a B for my exams prompted the following words, “Not good enough. You should do better!” Even if an A was scored, it was either “Why is this subject now an A and the other one a B?!” or “Let’s see whether you can sustain this for the next semester.” You can only imagine the repercussions that follow if I failed a test. And I most certainly did - a few times in fact.

Quite simply, I was never good enough for my dad. Or at least, this was message I got from his continual lack of praise.

Perhaps this was his definition of tough love but till today, I still wish for a day when I could receive endless words of compliments and encouragement from him - words that can provide fuel to spur me on when the going gets tough. Nonetheless, it was this recollection of my teenage past and the observation of the Asian corporate culture that got me wondering:

Why is there a practice of reserving compliments or not giving one at all in this part of the world?

Generally, why are Asian bosses so stingy with their praises to their employees?

Predictably, I can imagine a traditional, Asian leader justifying this widespread behaviour to the adherence of Confucian-like values, that praises cannot be dished out generously because the recipient may become conceited and complacent; or perhaps the individual was ‘just doing his or her job according to expectations’ – no compliments are needed. Praising, in the Asian context, seems to do more harm than good. Would you agree?

But before we jump into any conclusion, let us use science to explore this possible corporate myth.

In late-2012 at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences, 48 adult volunteers were recruited for a praise-performance study and were asked to learn and perform a specific finger pattern (pushing keys on a keyboard in a particular sequence as fast as possible in 30 seconds). Once participants had learned the finger exercise, they were separated into three groups. One group included an evaluator who would compliment participants individually, another group involved individuals who would watch another participant receive a compliment, and the third group involved individuals who evaluated their own performance on a graph. For the first group, the evaluators were careful to praise the participants only after the task was completed.

Subsequently, after a 24-hour retention interval, the researchers surprised the participants the next day with a “retest” of the trained sequence. This minimised the possibility that the participants either physically or mentally practiced the trained sequence prior to the retest. Importantly, these special considerations allowed the team to investigate the direct benefits of praise on skill consolidation.

When the participants were asked to repeat the finger exercise the next day, the group of participants who received direct compliments from an evaluator performed better than participants from the other groups. After considering all possible variables like the participants’ quality and length of sleep the night before and their mental alertness at the point of the retest, the results clearly indicated that receiving a compliment after a task stimulates the individual to perform better afterwards. There exists a direct relationship between praise and performance.

But why?

The research team concluded that praise, to the brain, is regarded as a form of reward because praise contains two essential components of reward – hedonic and motivational.

As a hedonic stimulant, praise can induce a feeling of happiness, but simultaneously, it can also promote motivation. Quite fascinatingly, praise activates and releases a healthy dose of ‘happy’ hormones, which are commonly know as dopamine. This band of merry hormones is scientifically responsible for positive feelings such as pleasure and ecstasy. More significantly, they are also linked to the mid-brain where they play an equally important role in the memory consolidation of motor skills. As a part of the striatum is connected to the mid-brain, rewards are thus expected to affect motor skill consolidation. Taken together, these findings suggest that praise functions as “social reward” that induces the dopamine transmission in the striatum, resulting in an enhancement of motor skills.

 Professor Sadato remarked, "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We've been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message 'praise to encourage improvement'."

It is truly ironic that it took an Asian man to make this conclusion.


Article by Andy Pan, the Director of Training at Right Impact Training

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