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University of Greenwich study on when not to say thank you

When it’s not a good idea to say thank-you to your employees

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Praise and recognition of your employees motivates them when they complete simple tasks, but isn’t the best form of motivation when it comes to more complex projects.

This is per a new study conducted by Dr Rebecca Hewett, senior lecturer in HRM with the University of Greenwich’s Business School, and Professor Neil Conway from Royal Holloway, University of London, published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour.

It found that verbal rewards for a complex task cause employees to enjoy the task less, and lower the level of their desire to do it in the first place.

Dr Hewett said: “The rewards that most people experience in relation to their day to day work are not financial, but rather verbal or written recognition from their manager.”

“However, while managers can use these ‘verbal rewards’ – often as simple as saying ‘thank you’ – for simple or repetitive tasks, this approach can backfire for complex tasks and projects.

She explained, that verbal praise can backfire in complex tasks, since such assignments are interesting enough in themselves to be motivating, so that extra encouragement is unwanted.

In fact, praising them in these cases can even rob staff of their own inner drive, she added.

ALSO READ: 6 things your employees are thankful for

The study asked respondents to complete a short questionnaire at the end of each working day for two weeks.

They answered questions about a specific task they had spent significant time on that day, and reported their motivation and any rewards that they expected to receive.

The research found that individuals reported lower intrinsic motivation if they expected to receive a verbal reward for a complex task – in other words, they enjoyed the task less, and had a reduced desire to do it.

For simple tasks, on the other hand, respondents’ intrinsic motivation was higher when they expected a verbal reward – probably because if the task in itself is not motivating, then the extra encouragement was helpful.

“We all have to do boring tasks in our working day, and this research suggests that managers can help to motivate us to do those simply by providing a bit of encouragement or saying ‘thank you’. For those more complex tasks, on the other hand, it would better to let us get on with it,” Dr Hewett summed up.

Shane Duffy, people and culture manager at Power2Motivate, adds many managers mistakenly assume leadership style is a function of personality instead of strategic choice.

Instead of choosing one style that suits their temperament, he suggests they should ask which style best addresses the demands of a particular situation.

“The best leaders don’t know just one style of leadership – they’re skilled at several, and have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate – using praise and recognition (either privately or publicly) to increase engagement as required,” Duffy explains.

“I can appreciate that in complex project environments, where staff are self-motivated, highly competent and need little direction and coordination (e.g. R&D groups, legal teams) that certain styles are less effective than others, including those which use praise and recognition regularly.”

Duffy foresees praise being effective in such complex environments where it is used sparingly to recognise innovation and calculated risk taking.

“Recognition done well reinforces behaviours, not just with the individual being praised, but everyone else in the business.”

Image: Shutterstock

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