It Takes Brains

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Compliments are always best made behind closed doors

Lucy Kellaway

    On praise, the experts have got it wrong:
    it should almost never be given in public.

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 are 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 — i.e. 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.

The office parallel is obvious: if you overhear someone from another department being flattered you will be unmoved but if the person sitting next to you is praised by your boss, the effect is roughly like drinking acid.

This means that most managers are getting it badly wrong. They have been taught that a vital part of their job is to stroll around the office dispensing praise here and there. They think they are justly celebrating the success of some and motivating others to try harder. What they are actually doing is creating resentment and making themselves deeply unpopular.

Likewise, all those schemes loved by “good” employers — like choosing an employee of the week, or writing glowing profiles in company newsletters — create more harm than good.

You could say that it doesn’t matter if public praise causes pain to fragile egos so long as it makes everyone try harder. But does it? The answer is that it depends.

According to psychologist Niels Van de Ven, there are two sorts of envy. There is benign envy, which motivates you to be better than the person you envy. And there is malicious envy that makes you want to take them outside and do something unspeakable to them.

In the experiment, benign envy resulted when the students thought the flattery was genuine. In that case, its effect was positive: many of the students said they were more inclined to buy themselves expensive clothes to try to look more fabulous themselves.

But my guess is that in most offices the bulk of envy is of the malign kind. Even if praise is deserved, it needs to be perceived to be deserved to have a benign effect. Human nature is such that this generally is not the case.

The best management text on this is the Horrid Henry series for children. The endless praising of Perfect Peter does not for one second make Horrid Henry try harder to be nice. Instead it makes him go above and beyond the call of duty in trying to dream up something really nasty to do to his little brother.

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