HAMBURG, Germany — Providing positive feedback to workers is a big part of any manager or leader’s job. However, interesting new research suggests supervisors may want to think twice about heaping too much praise on any one employee. Scientists at Kühne Logistics University have discovered a tendency for employees to act arrogantly toward their peers and co-workers after receiving lots of praise from their higher-ups.
Across three surveys encompassing hundreds of employees, study authors assessed how interactions between managers and staff affected employees’ behaviors towards one another.
“As our findings show, employees who receive better treatment from their supervisor often display arrogant behavior towards their colleagues,” says Dr. Benjamin Korman, who now conducts research at the University of Konstanz, in a media release. “This is especially true when privileged employees are already dominant and want to keep their perceived higher status. In this case, some are even willing to undermine their coworkers.”
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others, and it’s no different in the workplace. Since employees tend to weigh their own performances against their co-workers’, and put a whole lot of stock in managers’ words, special treatment from a supervisor may convince many employees that they “rank above” their peers.
“Managers need to bear in mind that how they treat their employees has an impact on how the employees treat each other,” Dr. Korman warns.
So, what can managers do to prevent inequalities in their teams?
“They need to appreciate all their employees and, of course, also acknowledge good work when they see it,” explains Christian Tröster, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at KLU. “But it depends on how they do it. Managers should only praise someone for specific contributions, especially to their team or the company.”
Study authors believe this type of approach can help workers develop a healthier, more authentic, sense of pride that will, ideally, motivate them to deliver better work performances without causing any negative behavioral side-effects for their co-workers.
The team used two experiments to reach these findings. Participants were given a short fictional story to read regarding their work as part of a team. In this story, they either received preferential treatment or were treated exactly the same as their co-workers. After reading the stories, participants were asked questions on their sense of pride, as well as their conduct towards co-workers (whether or not they tend to find fault with their ideas).
For the second experiment, the participants were now instructed to write their own text about a time in their life when they either felt superior to others or felt proud of an achievement without feeling superior. A control cohort, meanwhile, was asked to write down their typical workday. Just like the first experiment, this time around, the group was also asked questions regarding their conduct towards their co-workers.
Thought experiments are useful to a certain extent, but what about the real world? How do employees really act in the workplace? To research this aspect more thoroughly, study authors put together a so-called diary study involving employees from a variety of sectors. For a period of two weeks, the workers reported twice daily on how they were being treated by their manager, how that treatment made them feel, and how they treated their fellow co-workers (criticizing behind their back, withholding important information). This approach came to the same conclusions as the thought experiments.
All in all, the study authors say their work suggests many employees are prone to arrogance when provided with praise.
The study is published in the Journal of Management Studies.
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