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The Pitfalls Of Positive Workplace Feedback

The Pitfalls Of Positive Workplace Feedback
Claudia Kornmeier and Stephan Maaß

BERLIN — Employees at German companies say they don't get enough pats on the back, their superiors too stingy in praising a job well done. But even amid such rising expectations for positive reinforcement, some experts warn that managers must dole out praise in moderation. Too much approval, for a variety of reasons, can prove to be counterproductive.

"I don't know how you can be CEO without seeing, really seeing your employees at your workplace every day," Gerd Bucerius (1906—1995), founder and publisher of the weekly Die Zeit once said. The casual meeting in the hallway, he argued, creates social contact, the occasion to ask a question, or simply say "hello." That, and the opportunity to deliver stern reminders such as, "Please remove your hands from the pockets, people notice that," Bucerius said.

A lot of managers, however, don't heed that advice, according to Reinhold Haller, a personal and organizational development coach in Berlin. Instead they ascribe to the school of thought that says, "Compliment your employees every day." How nice! But does it work?

Haller, for one, isn't convinced. "Compliments are always a bit condescending," he says. "Plus, too much praise can even harm the company. Because if people are constantly complimented, they'll end up thinking everything's okay the way it is." That, in turn, compromises a manager's ability to express justified criticism, or to incite employees to do even better.

A better approach, he says, is to express appreciation. Doing that means looking more closely at an employee's individual situation at his or her home environment, for example. "If someone is having a hard time at home, he naturally won't be as efficient as usual at work either," Haller explains. "If his superior considers that and compliments him for working hard, in spite of everything, then that's worth much more than focusing on results only."

Either way, German employees say they don't get enough good feedback. Only half of the respondents to one recent survey said they are regularly complimented for good work, independent of the industry, the company size or region. The average was slightly higher (57%) for upper-level emloyees in small companies and significnalt lower (37%) for employees of transportaiton and logistics firms.

Jörg Felfe of the German psychological association isn't surprised by the varitions but says that overall, there is an "anti-praise culture" in Germany. Praise is important, he says, because systematic gratification has a positive effect on employee performance, motivation and satisfaction. A lack of appreciation, on the other hand, can produce stress and a bad temper. "The effect of compliments can even be measured neurologically," he says.

In the long run, both positive and negative "feedback loops" can occur. Compliments boost motivation, which improves performance and attracts further praise. Unhappiness leads to poor performance, which discourages positive recognition, thereby eroding motivation and making the possibility of praise even more remote.

But giving positive feedback also has its pitfalls, according to Silke Anbuhl, a management coach. If a superior heaps praise on just one employee, for example, she risks alienating others. Individual praise is best delivered in private, therefore. Likewise, when a manager is working with a team, he should compliment the entire group.

The opposite end of the extreme is the boss who withholds all postive feedback. In that case, says Anbuhl, employees should go ask for it in private, and in a diplomatic manner. "One might argue that it's difficult to assess one's own performance, and that some feedback would be appreciated," he explains.

Felfe says that many managers are largely unaware of their behavior in this regard. "They think they're a lot more generous with praise than they really are," he says. "Afraid that by complimenting too much they'll make their employees less motivated, they opt for under- rather than overdoing it."

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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