Science Says Randomly Praising New Employees (Whether They Deserve it or Not) Can Dramatically Improve Their Overall Performance


You probably know that praising people for their hard work can motivate them to work even harder. That praising people for creativity can encourage them to try new things, and take smart risks. That praising people for their interpersonal skills can inspire them to become even better teammates and leaders.

But what you might not know is that arbitrarily praising a new employee — whether they deserve it or not — is also likely to dramatically boost their performance.

I know: Sounds odd. If I’m a new employee and you randomly tell me I’m doing a great job — especially when I’m not — I may think that my level of (mediocre) performance is more than sufficient.

Yet that’s not the case according to a series of studies published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers donated money to randomly-selected Kickstarter projects. They rated randomly-selected Epionions reviews “very helpful.” They gave status awards to randomly-selected Wikipedia editors. They randomly signed a number of petitions.

What happened? As the researchers write:

Results show that different kinds of success (money, quality ratings, awards, and endorsements) when bestowed upon arbitrarily selected recipients all produced significant improvements in subsequent rates of success as compared with the control group of non-recipients.

Yep: Early success — whether actual or not — leads to future success. I don’t necessarily need to have been successful; I just need to think I was.

That’s Especially True for Unhappy Employees

Ask the average leader what they do to improve employee performance and you tend to hear the usual suspects. Provide the right tools and resources. Set and measure progress towards meaningful targets. Offer developmental opportunities. Build a great culture.

What you’ll rarely hear is making sure employees are happy, even though 2021 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows employee well-being and happiness accurately predicts employee performance. Researchers who spent seven years studying over 900,000 soldiers found that happy people perform better: The most positive and optimistic soldiers were four times more likely to receive awards than the least positive and optimistic soldiers.

But here’s the kicker. While going from “happy” to “super happy” is great, going from “unhappy” to “fairly happy” is even more powerful. As the researchers write:

There was a greater increase in the probability of attaining an award between low and moderate positive affect, compared to moderate and high positive affect. Affect is more strongly related to award attainment when going from unfavorable to moderate rather than moderate to favorable.

… moderate happiness was sufficient in our study to produce most of the benefits.

And that’s where early praise — even random early praise comes in. How many unhappy employees somehow magically turn the performance corner on their own? In my experience, very few. They need help turning that corner. Encouragement. Opportunity.

They need someone who believes in them, possibly even before they believe in themselves.

And They Need the Right Kind of Praise

Imagine you praise a new employee for an achievement. That’s fine… but that can also create an environment of fixed mindsets. 

As I’ve written about before, research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck show that most people tend to have one of two mental perspectives where talent is concerned:

1. Fixed mindset: the belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed –that we “are” what we were born with. People with a fixed mindset typically say things like “I’m just not that smart,” or, “I’m just not a good leader.” 

2. Growth mindset: the belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort — that we are what we work to become.

People with a growth mindset typically say things like, “With a little more time, I’ll get it,” or, “That’s OK. I’ll give it another try.”

Adopting — because you can change your mindset — a fixed mindset causes people to think they can’t change who they are. You’re smart, or you’re not. You’re talented, or you’re not. You’re a leader, or you’re not. 

And then, in challenging decisions, you feel helpless because you assume who you “are” just isn’t good enough — and you stop trying, and stop improving. 

The better way to give random praise? Praise effort, not just results. “Thanks for knocking that out.” Thanks for working so hard.” “Thanks for sticking with it.” 

By praising effort — even if that praise is random, and maybe even not completely deserved — you create an environment where people think anything is possible, as long as they stay the course and keep working working hard.

Because early success nearly always leads to future success.

Even if that early “success” is only real in the recipient’s mind.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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