Are You Giving Employees the Right Kind of Praise?

As a good boss, you want to praise and reward your employees when they perform well. But even well-intentioned accolades can have adverse effects in the wrong context, researchers say. In fact, the type of praise you give an employee has a direct impact on their decision-making.

According to a study led by Niro Sivanathan of the London Business School, the way that praise impacts workers has a lot to do with which traits are being praised.

Over the course of three experiments, researchers found that study participants who were affirmed in some core trait–including creativity, leadership, or honesty–were more likely to make confident, smart decisions than those who received no praise.

Seems an obvious conclusion, but here’s where it gets complicated.

In another experiment, Sivanathan and his team of researchers praised a pool of professionals for their decision-making skills. Then the professionals were asked whether they would continue to invest in an underperforming employee they had hired, or nix the bad hire and find a replacement. Participants whose self-esteem was tied to their decision-making prowess were 40 percent more likely to stick by the lackluster employee than participants who had received no praise.

By comparison, participants who were praised for a skill set not directly related to the hiring–like their creativity–were 40 percent less likely to stand by the employee who was obviously a bad hire.

The reason: Being praised for their creativity meant that they could admit to faulty decision-making on the hire, and look at the problem from a more objective position.