Praise for a Rising Star May Hurt Others in the Department

By: Marie Donlon

Branding an up-and-coming employee as a future leader or rising star may have unintended consequences for other employees, according to a study from the Universities of Queensland, Exeter, Groningen and Rotterdam.

When supervisors heap praise on an employee, researchers found that it often has the unintended cost of demotivating other employees, thus eroding enthusiasm and undermining commitment to the company.

Professor Miguel Fonseca, from the University of Exeter, who co-authored the research, said: "It must be tempting for companies to think that telling people they are a future leader will inspire them and encourage them to do well at work. But in fact it may demotivate those not chosen, and may undermine the commitment of the many who are rejected."

To reach this conclusion, researchers invited over 250 participants from Amazon M Turk to envision a scenario where their department head was leaving the company and they were all eligible to apply for that person’s position. Divided into three groups, one team was given no indication of their leadership potential, while the other two teams were given feedback about their high or low potential for leadership.

Unsurprisingly, those told their leadership potential was low were less ambitious and less committed to the company than those who received feedback describing their leadership potential as high.

A second part of the study measured task performance. Those told they had the potential to be leaders performed work-related tasks better than those told that they had low leadership potential.

Professor Michelle Ryan, from the University of Exeter, who co-authored the research said: "Our research shows it is crucial to study the effects not only on those who are selected as our future leaders, but also on those who are not in the leadership spotlight. These people become frustrated and lose motivation, and this affects their performance.

"It would be better for companies to show employees there are multiple career trajectories, jobs which involve leadership but also other roles which are central to the organisation. Not everyone wants to be a boss."

"How feedback about leadership potential impacts ambition, organizational commitment, and performance" is published in The Leadership Quarterly.