Critical Praise

You are trying to develop your team. You have been coaching them to improve their performance. You have been careful to stay focused on issues and not on their personal idiosyncratic differences. You even tried praise as a motivator. The problem is you usually see improvements in performance when you criticize problems. When you praise the good performance, people seldom repeat it. Doesn’t it just make more sense to criticize for the good of the team’s performance?

Let’s look at an example. An in house sales department has a goal of selling a volume of X everyday. The distribution for sales volume over the last year is shown in the figure below. Understandably there are better days and challenging days. The supervisor decides to highlight outstanding examples as a means of inspiring others to similar levels of performance.

On several occasions individuals have daily production of Z volume. The supervisor singled these individuals out for praise and positive recognition. Over time the supervisor noted that after being praised for a great performance the production of dropped off in the following days.  The supervisor began to wonder if she was trying to motivate in the wrong way.  She decided to try criticizing poor performance. Whenever anyone hit a performance level of Y she made the team member uncomfortably aware of their falling short. To her surprise, after being criticized for a poor performance the following performances tended to be better.

So what’s up with that? Does criticism work better than praise? Actually the supervisor’s selection of outlying performances is really what’s driving the next performance. Whether a poor performance is criticized or not it is likely the next performance will be closer to the mean performance. Similarly if an employee has one of the best days ever the odds are that his next day will be closer to normal production and it looks like the praise had the opposite effect.

So which is better, to praise or to criticize? What would the impact be if the supervisor was positive in coaching the individual with the poor performance? Statistically they would likely improve in their next outing. If it were all about luck that would be about all that happened. But if skill enters into this, then providing positive feedback may help the individual improve their skill. Not only would they likely have a better result next time but they may begin the practice of skills that improved their average result.

There is a place for criticism. Criticism can help reinforce boundaries and values. Someone knowingly engaging in horseplay resulting in an unsafe act in an environment where safety is a value needs to know they are outside the line. Criticism and even disciplinary action communicates the organization’s commitment to safety to the offending worker and to others around them. 

However, someone who performs an unsafe act out of ignorance may require training as well as an examination of the management practices that put him or her in a situation where the training the possessed was not adequate.

Once trained and given some experience what works best? Perhaps you can run your own experiment, collect some data and develop your won hypothesis. Does praise improve performance? When is the best time to apply praise and when is criticism the better choice? Are you really influencing change or just randomly selecting from a distribution around the mean?

Joe Thompson

© 2016 Differentiating Strategies, LLC