How false praise is damaging your organisation

False praise


Some leaders like to lavish praise on their teams because they feel it motivates them.

While praising employees is a great way to instil confidence in your team members, this technique should still be used with caution. If you lavish praise on people consistently for things that many consider to be fairly ordinary, people may start to pick up on this and assume it’s all for show.

When false praise becomes the norm and part of the culture, you have a bigger issue. Soon enough, nobody will be able to tell the difference between false praise and a valuable compliment! When the two have become indistinguishable from one another, praise loses its value as a motivational tool.

How false praise is damaging your organisation

There are several ways in which false praise can hurt your team and your organisation, particularly if it becomes a part of the culture.

False praise lowers the standard

I’ve worked for some leaders where standards are so high that it’s almost impossible to receive praise or a reward for your efforts.

On the other hand, I’ve also worked in organisations where it is normal for people to be described as “a gun” or “amazing” even when their performance has been fairly average.

Praise given when it is not warranted can be damaging for a team because it sets the standard. If you praise somebody for a task that others see as “Just OK”, then they will start to believe that this is the level of performance that is required to be seen as a high performer. When people in your team aren’t particularly self-motivated or driven, they may choose to set their level of effort to match your new standard. Then when they still receive praise for this effort, this will further reinforce their suspicions that they will be praised for almost anything!

False praise can lose you respect

If you are seen as a leader who lathers false praise on their employees, you will eventually be seen as having very low standards, or being inauthentic. High performers in your team will begin to feel as if they are working in a low performance culture, where minimal effort is required to succeed.

Eventually, when you praise somebody as being “awesome”, people will begin to think that this is all just words, not at all related to real performance. Soon people will take your words with a grain of salt, because they’ve seen that your level of praise doesn’t match their perceived reality.

What results in the long term is a lack of respect for your judgement, as you run around telling everybody they did a great job, with few of them actually believing it any more.

Praise follows the concept of supply and demand. When strong praise is less frequently encountered, it will carry a higher value. However, as with most aspects of leadership, balance is needed. You don’t want to become the leader who never compliments anybody, either.

False praise raises expectations for rewards

“Tom, you’ve done such an amazing job on this widget. You are fantastic, just so great!”

… (a few months go by)

“So, Tom, your performance rating is 2.5 out of 5”.

Poor Tom. He thought he was amazing, but it turns out that when it came to performance review time, the expectations that were built up from months of false praise were shattered.

The problem that Tom has experienced here is that everybody is “fantastic”, including him. When everybody is fantastic, Tom just becomes average and receives an average performance score. This is a demoralising experience for some employees as they realise that the praise they have been receiving was empty.

This hit to self-confidence can also follow employees throughout their career. “Am I really any good?”. “Were they just exaggerating when they said I did a good job?”

These aren’t good thoughts to carry along with you if you want to perform at your best.

How to avoid giving false praise

There is nothing wrong with thanking employees for their work. In my opinion, people should be thanked for delivering, but it’s important to avoid going overboard with false praise.

It can be really tempting in some situations to over-thank somebody who has been having a tough time or is in need of a pick me up, but it should be avoided where possible.

To avoid giving false praise, one of the best things I’ve found is to be very specific as to what you are thanking people for. Here are a few categories that can be used to clarify your thinking and ensure that your praise has merit:

  • Contrasting. Think back to a situation when a similar task was done poorly in your past experience. If you compare this to how your team member just carried out this similar activity, was it an improvement? If so, then you can pull use specifics to tell your team member exactly why they did a great job.
  • Behaviour. Sometimes the end product is not all there is. Often when people do good work, they may do so because of the manner in which they have conducted themselves. Look for specific behaviours that you observed to be better than expected. These can be used as specific examples for positive feedback.
  • Situation. Often praise is warranted when team members do good (or even average) work under duress. High pressure, tight deadlines and challenging people are all factors that can affect the outcome. Have a think about how you might praise somebody for their work in tough circumstances.

One day somebody might say to you “But I’m just doing my job, it’s no big deal”.

You will be able to say “I thought you deserved thanks because you did <X> well, when <Y> was happening. In the past, I’ve seen that sort of situation turn bad before. So thanks.”

Avoiding false praise doesn’t mean you can’t be polite

Of course, just saying thank you to somebody is not the biggest issue in the world. After all, we say thank you to people who hold the door for us and people who buy us a coffee.

However, when you start heaping strong praise on people for doing an average job, things can get out of hand. This can contribute to an organisational culture that has a misguided view of what comprises high performance.

I once worked for an organisation that displayed such a culture. Once a series of whole-of-company reply-all emails was sent around celebrating a completed project. The final (of many) replies on that email chain was:

Let us all shout : WE ARE AMAZING !!

Praise is good, but let’s not go overboard. Otherwise this is what happens.

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