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When Praise Is Discouraging to Professional Peers

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Image by Sue Styles from Pixabay

We often recognize the motivational value of praise, lavishly bestowing it on top performers, both personally and professionally, recognizing excellence and a job well done.

What about the colleagues and coworkers who are similarly situated but didn’t receive praise? Research reveals there are circumstances under which targeted public praise can have unintended consequences.

Creatures of Comparison

As human beings, we are innately wired to be conscious of ourselves, but also interested in how we measure up to our peers. When I announce grades are posted in the law school classes I teach, students want to know two things: 1) their grade, and 2) the class average. The same phenomenon operates in the workplace, particularly within industries where employers run numbers, and top performers are praised for their productivity.

But when productivity is determined based on professional output, not all employees can measure up. There are many hard workers who for often very good reasons such as childcare responsibilities or other demands on their time, cannot be as productive as their peers. And then there is the reality that many people work to live as opposed to living to work, seeking to maintain a healthy work-life blend through protecting personal time. Accordingly, in order to be fairly bestowed, professional praise should be based on something other than numbers.

Peer Comparison and Job Motivation

For employees, public recognition is motivating, encouraging, and inspiring. But depending on the recipient, public praise does not always have a positive impact on peers. Research offers some solutions to temper professional praise with practical reality.

Todd Rogers and Avi Feller (2016) investigated how exposure to exemplary peer performance might be discouraging.[i] In two studies, they demonstrated that exposure to exemplary peer performances have the potential to undermine motivation and success through inducing a sense of disenfranchisement—leading people to perceive they cannot live up to the high level of performance by their peers. In one study involving an online course using peer assessment for example, exposure to exemplary peer performances caused a large proportion of students to quit the course.

Discussing all of the results, however, Rogers and Feller noted that one way to temper potential discouragement through exposure to peer excellence during assessment is through balancing exposure to excellent performances with less excellent performances. They also noted the value of neutralizing discouragement by peer excellence by expeditiously acknowledging the distinction of truly excellent performances, to minimize the risk that such excellent performances could be interpreted as typical.

Professionalism Is More Than Productivity

Excellence can be measured in many ways other than output. The manner in which someone approaches a task, domestically or professionally, can be commendable whether in the boardroom or the living room. Celebrating positive effort and emotions such as kindness and empathy in addition to industriousness, broadens the scope of praiseworthy acts and behaviors. The goal is not just to notice, but to voice respect and appreciation for the admirable acts and behavior of others.

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