Piling praise on an employee doing difficult, complex work actually robs them of their internal motivation, finds a new study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
For two weeks, 58 people who worked at a corporation in the U.K. filled out a questionnaire about their work day: what task required the most effort, how mentally complex it was, how motivated they were to do it and the extent to which they expected any type of recognition for it.
How much an employee expected a reward—usually verbal or written praise from a boss—was the crucial measure in the study, and that’s what researchers looked at: the effect an expectation of reward had on their motivation.
It turns out that expecting a reward can make difficult work less enjoyable. “For complex tasks, actually expecting or thinking about a verbal reward is not a good thing,” says Dr. Rebecca Hewett, study co-author and senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Greenwich business school in London. “It can be detrimental to people.”
With more complex tasks, employees were found to be more intrinsically motivated—or pushed forward by forces inside them, like actually enjoying a task because they find it interesting or because they recognize its value. Concentrating on rewards undermines this, the researchers found.
That suggests managers should use a different strategy for when employees are absorbed by a challenging project. “If it’s quite complex work, it might be better to be supportive but leave people to it,” Hewett explains. “They don’t necessarily need some additional encouragement to do a task that’s complex, because actually that task in itself is probably quite motivating.”
But in simple tasks, the results were just the opposite. When employees had to do mundane, workaday jobs, getting praise like a thank you email actually seemed to make them enjoy the job more—perhaps because the incentive made the job seem more important, the authors say.
The results are immediately useful to managers, who may want to motivate their employees even when they can’t hand out raises.
“Often we don’t really think about the verbal rewards we use on a day-to-day basis, but actually those are things that are likely to influence people’s motivation much more than the tangible rewards, which we don’t get as frequently,” Hewett says. Meaty, complex tasks are motivating enough on their own to satisfy workers, but the little things need a little more recognition, the results suggest.
“We all have to do really boring tasks,” she says. “If I had someone saying to me, ‘This would really help me, I’d be really, really grateful if you could do this filing by the end of the day,’ that might help to motivate me.”