Ego Massage Does Your Business More Harm Than Good

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2008-04-03

Oh, the management happy talk. Be supportive. Be collegial. Always give feedback with a positive spin.

Aren’t you just dying to tell someone they stink when they stink? Aren’t there days when you just want to storm into the office in some spit-soaked, David Mamet-Glengarry Glen Ross-fueled rage and shout “put that coffee down! That coffee’s for closers only!”?

Your time has come, my friend.

According to new research from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the London Business School, not only is giving phony encouragement to slackers a soul-withering experience for managers, it can also backfire and hurt the business. According to the researchers, an employee’s self worth gets wrapped up in the phony, esteem-boosting smoke you blow at them, which makes them try even harder to prove they’re good at what you really know they’re terrible at.

And then bad things happen.

“The more that people's feelings of self-worth are wrapped up in a poor decision they’ve made, the greater their impulse will be to justify it in some way,” says Daniel C. Molden, assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern and one of the authors of The Promise and Peril of Self-affirmation in De-escalation of Commitment.

Most of the study centered on financial and human-resources decisions. In one example, participants acted as senior managers and were given copious praise for their rational decision making. Now believing themselves to be world-class decision makers, they were then told that someone they had hired was not working out. An overwhelming majority recommended spending additional time and money on employee training, rather than admit they made a poor call and cut their losses.

Those who were given neutral or negative feedback about their overall decision making had no problem cutting the troublesome new hire loose.

In our world, clinging to a misguided sense of self-esteem works like this. You have an IT admin who makes decisions on new technology with a success rate roughly akin to a coin flip. But being the evolved, new-age manager you are, you lie and tell him his instincts are first rate.

When the spam filtering technology he installed starts to gobble legitimate e-mails—infuriating users and crushing corporate productivity—he’ll go to the wall trying to defend his choice. He’ll blame user error, insufficient training, nefarious outside forces… anything to keep from admitting he made a bad call. After all, YOU told him he was a whiz. Is any of this sounding familiar?

“A supervisor could make a problem even worse when he or she tries to restore the confidence of, say, the finance division by reminding everyone that they are skilled analysts at the same time the current allocation strategy is bleeding money and is in need of reassessment,” writes Kellogg’s Adam Galinsky, who should be praised by his boss for understatement.

The stated goal of the study is, according to the researchers, to give organization ways to bolster both employee self-esteem and the company’s bottom line. They claim the challenge is to instill confidence in people so they can change, rather than justify, the course of a failing strategy.

That sounds an awful lot like simply telling the truth. Not pop psycho-babble, not Management by Walking Around, not happy talk in the face of adversity. The unvarnished truth. Do it with kindness. Do it with compassion. Always do it in private.

But for the sake of the organization, do it. Tell people what they need to do, not what they want to hear. As Gen. George S. Patton once said, “I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.”

Now doesn’t that feel better?

Feel free to tell me I stink. E-mail me with your management techniques at