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Hey Boss, Here's Why Your Compliments Never Work

Have you ever complimented an employee and felt like it went over like a lead balloon? Gee, was it something you said?

Well, maybe. A new University of Greenwich study reveals that verbal rewards (a.k.a., "good job!" and "thank you") from the boss go only so far to motivate us on the job!

While employees respond well to compliments regarding inconsequential work matters ("I really like how you sharpened these pencils!"), compliments have less meaning to us the more complex a project becomes ("Overall, I like how the first 250 pages are going").

In other words, we're more likely to work harder when we're complimented for small accomplishments, but compliments regarding large scale projects? Eh, stop it boss, because you're making me lose interest in the work!

What is going on here? Who doesn't love the occasional, verbal, "keep up the good work" compliment in regard to a lengthy, in-depth report or project? Being told that we're making good progress should be music to our ears, but the researchers found the opposite to be true for employees. According to

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.

Ahhhhh, now it all makes sense! Simple, repetitive tasks are boring, and so we need a verbal Scooby Snack to get us through them!

Meanwhile, if we're working on a lengthy, involved project, then we may be expecting occasional compliments -- and gushing ones at that! So when a "compliment" (employees' air quotes, not mine) finally rolls off the boss's tongue months into the work, it might fall flatter than a pancake because we were expecting so much more given the scope of the project.

Whew! I'm glad I'm not a mid-level manager who has to figure out how, and when, to issue the perfect compliment to today's workforce. I'm just sitting here writing a book (a lengthy project, in case you're wondering...) and so far, I haven't been complimented for it. Curiously, I haven't lost motivation -- yet. Overall, I do like how the first 250 pages are going.

I will now go compliment my coffee maker so it will continue the boring, repetitive task of brewing my coffee.


  1. Did the coffee become better after your compliments? :D

    Very interesting article. I myself work in a corporation with a whole Egyptian pyramid worth of managers above me, each of who is equally inadequate complementing my work. Basically what happens is I get told off whenever a mistake was made, however small it may have been. No praise comes about even for achievements of higher scale.

    However, as wannabe-good-managers, they do realize some form of encouragement or another should be issued and they compliment something without much deliberation. What happens is this. I get praise for insignificant accomplishments whereas bigger successes remain unnoticed.

    In this particular scenario, compliments have quite the opposite effect to what's intended. I can't even try to imagine how many people are in a similar position.

    I was a mid-level manager once myself and I'd like to think I did a good job motivating my people. I was lucky enough to have niche experts who did well with given project and as a form of reward, I just gave them the freedom to come up with new projects beneficial to the company and to prioritise their work as they deemed fit. My input was to have them adhere to general deadlines and to provide feedback continuously throughout their work. I was happy to see them devoured by their work, eager to do more. One guy was staying for hours after his shift ended just to make further progress on his projects, overtime he refused to write down and monetize. He just wanted to do more work with his free time ;)

    Thanks for the great post, really got me thinking.

    Best regards,

  2. Curiously, the coffee turned out exactly the same. Thank you for asking. Thanks, too, for taking the time to comment. It's always nice to hear different perspectives.


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