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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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