Verbal praise for complex task could backfire at work

London: While a bit of encouragement or a small “thank you” can motivate workers to do simple tasks, such verbal praise for a complex task could rob employees of their inner drive, new research has found.

“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,” said study co-author Rebecca Hewett, senior lecturer in human resources management at University of Greenwich in England.

“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,” Hewett noted.

“That is likely to be because the latter are interesting enough in themselves to be motivating, so that extra encouragement is unwanted. In fact, it can even rob staff of their own inner drive,” she explained.

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

They answered questions about a specific task that 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 is helpful.

The study was published in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour.