Caution: Lavish Praise Can Backfire

An exhaustive study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, raised strong doubts about the value of efforts to lift the self-esteem of students and of employees.

The research team that authored the study reviewed research papers going back 30 years. The team, headed by psychologist Roy Baumeister, looked at links between how highly people esteem themselves and their success in school performance, the workplace, and personal relationships. These are areas where most people have assumed increased self-esteem leads to achievement.

Not so, in most instances. In the report the authors wrote, “We have found no evidence that boosting self-esteem causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes.” Most of the study focused on the efforts in schools to raise the self-esteem of students. However, the study also concluded that efforts to raise the self-esteem of employees in the workplace generally was ineffective.

The study defined self-esteem as “how much value people place on themselves.” It stated, “Self-esteem is thus perception rather than reality.”

Here are excerpts from the published research:

  • “Job performance in adults is sometimes related to self-esteem, although the correlations vary widely, and the direction of causality has not been established. Occupational success may boost self-esteem rather than the reverse. Alternatively, self-esteem may be helpful only in some job contexts. Laboratory studies have generally failed to find that self-esteem causes good task performance, with the important exception that high self-esteem facilitates persistence after failure.”
  • “Self-esteem has a strong relation to happiness… high self-esteem does lead to greater happiness.”
  • “Applied to the world of work, the self-esteem hypothesis suggests that people who feel better about themselves perform better. [Researchers) surveyed the results of 40 studies with more than 5,000 participants and found that most of them showed weak positive relationships.”
  • “Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes… indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism, with its less desirable consequences. Instead, we recommend using praise to boost self-esteem as a reward for socially desirable behavior and self-improvement.”
  • “There is no strong evidence indicating specifically that high self-esteem leads to improved performance on the job.”

This report’s conclusions raise the question: What should workplace leaders do about praising and rewarding employees? A clue is in this statement from the report: “Quite possibly, occupational success leads to high self-esteem rather than the reverse.”

What to do: Avoid giving out indiscriminate praise and rewards. Especially, don’t overdo praising and recognizing an employee for performance that is actually below your expectations and below the employee’s ability to perform. Instead, praise and reward an employee when the employee actually has performed well, and especially when the employee has performed beyond expectations. The key is this: “occupational success leads to high self-esteem.”


The Good Side to Self-Esteem

High self-esteem does improve persistence in the face of failure, especially when persistence is an adaptive strategy. People with high self-esteem are more willing than others to choose their own strategies, and they are more responsive to situational cues indicating when to persist and when to move on to a more promising alternative.

People with high self-esteem sometimes perform better than people with low self-esteem in groups. They speak up more and are recognized by peers as contributing more.

Using self-esteem as a reward rather than an entitlement seems most appropriate to us… A favorable view of self should be promoted on the basis of performing well and behaving morally… Praise that bolsters self-esteem in recognition of good performance can be a useful tool to facilitate learning and further improve performance in the future.

— Excerpts from Psychological Science in the Public Interest report by Roy F. Baumeister


© 2017