Why you should praise employees even when they’re doing badly

Honesty may not be the best management policy. Overrating underperforming staff may actually help them improve

Boss praising an employee while crossing her fingers behind her back

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

When he was running General Electric, Jack Welch famously fired the bottom 10% of company performers and boasted about squeezing as much juice as possible out of the remaining lemons. Much of Welch’s success was credited to this “rank-and-yank” model.

The idea that negativity translates into productivity has been floating around the management zeitgeist for a long time. But organizational science experts are increasingly emphasizing the need for more positive workplace environments, even for underperforming employees. According to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, employees who receive more praise and positive workplace evaluations are more likely to see their actual workplace performance improve. In other words: If you tell the people around you that they are awesome, they will be.

Study authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman (of the Zenger Folkman leadership development consultancy) examined hundreds of performance evaluations at multinational corporations and found that the direct reports of negative raters were less likely to be engaged or display leadership abilities. “A lot of bosses believe that if they’re hard to please, then people will raise their performance to meet whatever obnoxious criteria they have,” says Folkman. “And it’s just not true.” Instead, a lack of trust and confidence plays out in staff behaviour. “If the message an employee receives is that he’s not smart enough, then performance goes down,” says Folkman. “If the message is that you’re bright and capable, then you want to show them they’re right.” Overrating underperforming employees on their evaluations may just be the confidence boost they need to improve, until they eventually merit your glowing report.

Cameron Teedon, vice-president of visual merchandising for Indigo, learned early on in his management career that it’s best to have employees who feel good about themselves. “You have to leave someone’s ego in check, even if they’ve made a mistake,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of managers who are angry, self-centred and confrontational, but that always catches up with you in the long run. You won’t get results that are sustainable.” Beverley Wybrow, the recently retired CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, agrees. “If you come from a negative place, you just create a fear that doesn’t make them more productive.”

Management gurus and academic research support the idea that a positive environment creates better results. Workplace virtuousness, exhibited in traits like forgiveness, gratitude and compassion, has been shown to improve employee performance. And Wharton School professor Adam Grant argues in his 2013 book Give and Take that managers who foster “giving behaviours” are rewarded with greater loyalty and efficiency. Folkman found the research persuasive enough to alter his own workplace interactions when employees mess up. “I stopped sending emails with the how-can-you-be-so-stupid tone,” he says. “I realized it’s just not helpful.”

Of course, you can’t just blithely pretend that the human disaster obsessively playing Candy Crush in the back office is a candidate for employee of the month. Legitimate performance issues arise, and must be addressed. Wybrow recommends creating an environment where all employees are expected to identify strengths and areas in which they need some help to improve. Focus on constructive solutions instead of criticism. “Everyone has a bit of genius,” says Folkman. “Believing in people, finding a good fit for them and helping them set stretch goals really works. Are you telling people that they can do it or that they can’t? If you err on the side of generosity, you’ll get more from them.”